What About The Words?

The Arts


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.



23 comments on “What About The Words?”

  1. Jo W says:

    Ah,English Comprehension, not only a lesson but it was also a part of English GCE for both language and of course literature. I used to like the unseen texts,some of these made me look out the books or verse at the library.
    Thank you for including Mr. Sellers this morning,Chris. A grin to start the day and send me dusting off my LP to hear again his version of Help, as a church sermon. 🙂
    P.S. Shakespeare Forever!

  2. Julie says:

    I’ve seen productions where the poetry has obviously been an inconvenience. Talk about lost in translation. Words fail on that poster, by gad.

  3. Brian Evans says:

    The late, great actor A.E.Matthews said he never did Shakespeare for three reasons:

    1. I haven’t got the legs for the tights

    2. Unless you play royalty you never get to sit down on the stage

    3. I can’t understand a damn word the feller’s on about in the first place

  4. Kit says:

    I watched Romeo and Juliet last night; the live broadcast of the performance of the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company at the Garrick Theater in London. It was shown in one of the local movie theaters (I live in North Carolina) and it was absolutely fantastic. It was just beautifully done (the language was definitely of great importance), and I was sobbing at the end (when the parents come out to see their dead children). I don’t think I’ve ever been that moved by a production of Shakespeare. It’s such a different sort of way to go to the movies; just for an event like this, but it was wonderful to get the opportunity to see a play in the UK so easily in the US.

  5. Terenzio says:

    The School for Scandal isn’t a particular good play. And it’s overly long. There are better Englsh plays from the 18th cenutry.

    À bientôt….the one in the gorgeous purple silk dressing gown and lovely velvet slippers.

  6. admin says:

    I agree, Terenzio, it’s like a Carry On film, but she should have been able to follow it!

    Brian, I once interviewed Irene Handle about performing in classical plays when she was young, and she told me she looked for ‘ones with a practical meal in the second half’.

  7. Terenzio says:

    Chris, in her defense I’m not sure about that. Sure the language is English, but it’s different in a way. I’m not knowledgable enough in this subject so it’s difficult for me to clarify or expand on my rather vague statement. I have the same problem as your friend. Usually helps to read the play beforehand. You get a better understanding/grasp of the play and you’re able to look up unfamiliar words or phrases.

  8. Terenzio says:

    Also it’s difficult to enjoy something if you’re having difficulty understanding it. You’ll grow bored quite quickly and just want to go.

  9. snowy says:

    I’m not sure that Directors/Actors have the nerve to perform older plays as they were meant to be performed.

    Film acting sets the norm for modern performance being the most common form, every gesture magnified on a giant screen. But it’s not how the plays were designed to be performed, I don’t think the bulk of the original audience would have got some of the more elaborate wordplay even when the plays were first performed, [that was aimed at the educated elite].

    Without the ability to shift POV every action had to be bigger and more ‘obvious’, villians were gloriously, moustache twirlingly villianous, fey heroines wilted, heros identified by their noble actions. When the meaning of the words flew over their heads it was still obvious who was who and what their motives were. And this would pull them through any complex wordplay.

    [Some plays still work with a modern acting style, some don’t. It’s not a problem with the play, it’s a problem of audience expectation.]

  10. Jo W says:

    To Snowy,

  11. Jo W says:

    Oh ,Snowy those emoticon thingies didn’t show up – they were supposed to be clapping hands. 😉

  12. Terenzio says:

    Having not seen this particular production I can’t comment on its merits. However, since the play takes place in 1777 the actors should…as they say…get into character so I’m not sure what you mean by modern acting style. This might purely be a deficiency on my part. In my mind, their actions, motivations, attitudes and manners should reflect those of this specific time period. Taking into account class (upper) and culture (British/English), not that of contemporary British/English society. Using period furniture helps to get into character and set the stage. Sitting, standing and even walking, since the clothes were in many ways dissimilar to today’s fashion, would be quite different compared to today. Now the big question is, could this particular play be updated or set in modern/contemporary times? I don’t know. I’ve seen a very good production of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore that was updated. It worked fine on all levels. I have also seen an excellent production set in the original 17th century.

  13. Terenzio says:

    Some plays, like films can become dated. Not everything stands the test of time. And a lot of times it’s due to the writing. That’s why Shakespeare is as popular as ever….he was one hell of a good writer. Recently I saw a film from 1960 called Private Property. They said it was thought lost….well it should’ve stayed lost. The only redeeming quality is it wasn’t that long.

  14. snowy says:

    T, you have encapsulated in your reply the very essense of the thing that I was struggling to find the words for.

    If the character you are playing is a completely barking 17thC squire with a penchant for having servants flogged for walking on the grass. He should be played as such and not as a 21stC Used-Car Salesman from Surrey.

  15. Vivienne says:

    Recently read a book Who Wrote Shakespeare? The arguement was one so busy in the acting world would have had no time to write – think candlelight late at night and so on. And then the erudition and, obvious need for access to good library ( not easy then). So was it our Stratford man? But still, those words were genius and maybe will never be explained. What is intrinsic is surely the real understanding of human nature, which is why the plays can translate across time.

  16. Julie says:

    Please, nobody mention Bacon! It’s such an effort for me to not froth st the mouth.

  17. John Howard says:

    Of course it was “our Stratford man”. Why do we feel the need to try and drag it away from him. Genius is inherent not something that is learnt. Shakespeare had a good education, he wasn’t some uneducated chap from the slums and the majority of his plots were cobbled together from many sources so the nonsense that he hadn’t traveled or been to university is part of the reasoning behind why he wasn’t the one is just that. It’s interesting that all the naysayers don’t come from his time period. That just leaves the words and he obviously had the capability to put them together in fabulous ways. And words are where we came in….
    P.S. Bacon, paah and you may have noticed Julie that it’s less of an effort for me to froth at the mouth. Ah well, away for another cup of tea to wash it all away.

  18. John Howard says:

    Oh yes, like Chris & Jo W, when I was at school ( one of the old Technical High Schools ) there were two different English classes, Language & Literature. We did The Merchant of Venice and I didn’t understand half of it but the images that the teacher we had pulled of the text for us are still there. Not least, try and get you pound of flesh without any of the blood.

  19. Julie says:

    Nice frothing! Hear hear

  20. snowy says:

    The speculation has given us a few extra diversions, ‘Anonymous’ a film based on the idea that the plays were written by Edward de Vere, the ‘Oxford Theory’. Worth the price of admission for the costumes and scenery if nothing more.

    Or if ‘Horrible Histories’ is more your “Butt of Malmsey” there is ‘Bill’ (2015)

    “What really happened during Shakespeare’s ‘Lost Years’? Hopeless lute player Bill Shakespeare leaves his home to follow his dream.”

    Not the best film I’ve ever seen, nor the worst. But it would keep young children amused on a wet afternoon.

  21. Julie says:

    Like the look of Anonymous thanks snowy, the man certainly has the power of fascination still, and that time in history is mysterious – who killed Marlowe, etc. Not an easy time to be a playwright.

  22. Julie says:

    Also would recommend ‘William takes the stage’ in just William to see the Baconites get a black eye.

  23. TR says:

    I would propose that the density of Shakespeare’s writing was an economic ploy to some degree. If you can interest an audience in your play then you should be able to insure that they will come back to see it again, and yet again, in order to acquire a better understanding of the “necessary questions of the play” as well as to enjoy the texture of the language. That is the main reason I reread–and buy– books such as the Bryant & May series–they are never quite the same river twice.

    Did the exhibit contain any of the MS pages from the Sir Thomas Moore play? They are widely considered to be in Willie’s handwriting. The speed and facility with which they were written suggest that he and he alone was the author of Shakespeare’s plays.

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