I Thought Shakespeare Was Just for Literature Buffs

B picProbably the worst thing to do to Shakespeare is just to read his plays in the English of 400 years ago. I doubt he would call that “pleasure in learning” in the fullest sense. If you’re a linguist, it might be pleasure, but for the general reader of today, it might be best to see the bard’s plays as a fixed text from which to adapt. But first consider the surprising statement of my grad school Shakespeare professor, Dr. Nancy Hancock, who said that in Shakespeare’s day people said, “Let’s go hear a play.” Plays were considered an aural experience.

Shakespeare was quite a teacher as well as a writer. He aimed to reach everybody. It might be that he thought like movie makers of today: “Let’s aim for universal appeal.” Thus, rather than market only to the educated, Shakespeare wrote to entertain everybody. He took familiar stories from history and adapted them into dramas that fell into the categories of comedies, histories, and tragedies. Using lots of imagination and plenty of humor in the form of jesters and fools with pointed wit and riddles, Shakespeare had something for every social class, and England was definitely a class society.

List of titles of works based on Shakespearean...

He did this by an array of characters so rich and full that everyone could identify plenty enough to be entertained and instructed. By instructing, however, the bard did not resort to what is overt and lecture-like in format. Rather, he showed one slice of life after another and let the characters speak for themselves—leaving audiences to bandy their interpretations with each other. It might be impossible to find Shakespeare’s own philosophy or doctrine because his themes are so universal. That’s just it: who doesn’t know what ambition is, or lust or greed or romance. Who doesn’t know what love is, or hate, or intrigue and retaliation.

In college, I remember my Shakespeare class; it met at 8:00 AM class and was based on reading the plays. I’m sure the lecturer did his best to bring the plays to life, but I’m equally sure that Cliffs Notes got quite a workout. That’s sad. Nothing is more unlike a book than a set of generic study notes—all of the story with none of the flavor. This isn’t to bunk reading the plays; it’s more to suggest taking in Shakespeare on a performance level, with the written text as part of the experience, not the whole of it.

Ethan Hawke at a screening for "What Does...

When a play has difficult language, even with adaptation, it will be challenging to see it on stage, and so it can help to read the text beforehand. But today, many stage adaptations and films are accessible even to a viewer who doesn’t want to take two to four hours to read the play first. This doesn’t mean that modern adaptations both on stage and in film are bastardizations; they are genuine ways to present an ancient and difficult text and make part or all of it live in a new medium.

There’s still plenty of room for the purist as well. I remember going to the Austin Peay library several times with my book and checking out a video of a stage production. I would read, listen, and watch. It was a powerful experience to have the brain working in three ways simultaneously. Filled is the word that came to mind.

Yet I also enjoy film adaptations and have reveled in Hamlet performed by Laurence Olivier, Mel Gibson, Ethan Hawke, and Kenneth Branagh. These four film versions could not be more different for being the same play and using Shakespeare’s language. The 2000 Ethan Hawke version is even set in New York City, with Bill Murray as Polonius (not a comedic role however, though Polonius is a buffoon at times in his blustering ways) and Julia Stiles as an edgy Ophelia.

'The Comedy of Errors' by William Shakespeare

‘The Comedy of Errors’ by William Shakespeare (Photo credit: Huntington Theatre Company)

Taking a fixed text, yet adapting it to different mediums and senses, as well as changing the time period and cultural setting from Shakespeare’s choice, is certainly fair play. That’s exactly what Shakespeare himself did with old stories, so he would find it appealing that in his train, others would do the same with his works. It is engaging to take a work of art and meld it into offshoot art. Think of how many chicken recipes there are, yet chicken is chicken. Shakespeare will remain Shakespeare as well—with all the pleasure of sight, sound, text, and imaginative adaptation.

pleasureteam note: Kudos to Brian for providing an illustration of how sensory pleasure, surprise, and humor are all part of Shakespeare’s repertoire.  Brian has used all these to help his students feel part of a group that meets an achievable challenge and ultimately owns something of value


One comment on “I Thought Shakespeare Was Just for Literature Buffs

  1. […] I Thought Shakespeare Was Just for Literature Buffs (pleasureinlearning.com) […]

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