What About The Words?
Yesterday I went to the ‘Shakespeare In Ten Acts’ Exhibition at the British Library. I’d never seen a real first folio or any examples of Shakey’s handwriting before. It’s a thoughtful and well-focussed show that doesn’t attempt the impossible by covering too much. Instead it concentrates on ten specific subjects. The last, the Wooster Group’s interpretations of Shakespeare, proves a mystifying way to end the exhibition but the rest are succinct, well illustrated and easy to comprehend.
This being the British Library the exhibits largely revolve around texts, but there are a few costumes and video performances scattered about too. It made you realise what a sprawling subject this is, but you also become aware of what is inevitably missing in a show with limited space.
While I was there, teachers were taking half a dozen classes around the exhibition and giving talks, so it was a chance to watch a modern class in action. In one group both educators and kids were extremely knowledgeable and I became fascinated by the subjects they covered.
These were, in the main, why women were not allowed on the Elizabethan stage, gender fluidity in roles, how strong female roles reinvented theatre, how a black actor was eventually cast in ‘Othello’, the idea of colour-blind casting and experimental productions.
These are all clearly very important aspects of studying Shakespeare, but the one thing nobody mentioned in all of this was the words. The beauty of them, the pleasure of them, the difficulty of understanding them. It was a million miles away from my schooldays of learning by rote from dusty textbooks with no mention of anything but the language. No-one explained that reading Shakespeare is less helpful than seeing it performed.
To me the elephant in the room is always comprehension. Does the person to whom you’re talking understand you? As a child of say, 10, Shakespeare’s language seemed utterly alien until a teacher helpfully broke down a single sentence over and over again, explaining that it was like a code to be cracked.
I remember seeing this clip, which shows how declamatory acting imbues anything with gravitas.
At some point during our study of Hamlet something clicked inside and I had no further problems with the language, but if this isn’t addressed first I imagine children quickly lose interest. I’ve taken visitors to the Globe since and realised my mistake when watching their professed enthusiasm turn to boredom in minutes. They can’t decipher the words. I once took an American friend to see Sheridan’s ‘School For Scandal’ – a play that isn’t exactly hard to follow – and 15 minutes in she leaned over and said ‘Have we seen enough now?’ They say humour travels but wit doesn’t – perhaps that was the problem.
At school we used to have specific ‘English Comprehension’ lessons – do they still do that? Of course it’s critical for teachers to address racial identity, and for many pupils in a multi-ethnic class this is utterly essential, but in all of this it felt as if the words were being lost. Not once did I hear mention that Shakespeare could make you laugh or cry, or about why words can so profoundly affect you. One video clip brought that idea to life, of Mark Rylance in ‘Twelfth Night’. For me, Shakespeare begins and ends with the language, which acts as a bridge leading you across into the ideas.
Incidentally, if you want an idea of how much teaching has transformed, go to YouTube and watch clips from 1971’s ‘Please Sir!’ and 2015’s ‘Bad Education’. Under the first one commentator has put, ‘Why are they all white?’ They might also ask why the teacher his ogling his pupil’s knickers.