Struts and Frets His Hour Upon the Page

There is a broad debate about Shakespeare that I find endlessly frustrating: whether Shakespeare belongs on your bookshelf or in the theatre. There is intense partisanship on both sides, but my anecdotal experience leads me to believe that the theatre crowd is the more numerous and influential one. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard a well-meaning educator tell a group of students that “Shakespeare is meant to be heard aloud, not read. Shakespeare belongs on the stage, not the page!”

I take issue with the entire debate, not any one conclusion in that debate. My experience with Shakespeare has been both literary and theatrical, and I refuse to believe that either way is entirely sufficient. I think that a reasonably proficient reader with no theatre experience can absorb about 80% of what Shakespeare offers and an experienced theatre-goer who has seen Shakespeare’s plays but never read one probably absorbs about 75% of the depth. Think of it as a venn diagram.

I worry about the future of the language arts, both in education for children as in the culture of adults. It feels as though our attention spans have been shortened by the new media of the 21st century: smartphones, social media, youtube, &c &c &c. It also feels as though educators are capitulating to young people’s attitudes instead of trying to shape them. Instead of teaching them that education and self-improvement can be a difficult and slow process that reaps benefits in the long term, we try to give them what they already have: fast, cheap, instant gratification.

Shakespeare is entertaining, and Shakespeare undoubtedly wrote primarily in order to entertain, so there is obviously nothing wrong with the statement that you should see Shakespeare performed. I work in the theatre and I am constantly telling people that they should go see Shakespeare’s plays. But I wholly reject the idea, constantly asserted by many educators, that reading Shakespeare is a waste of time and that the only real way to learn Shakespeare is to perform in the plays or watch others do so.

Setting aside the idea that a piece of art should always be appreciated in its original medium, which one may or may not agree with, you have to account for historical changes when you look at Shakespeare’s plays. What I mean is that, even if you think that a play should only be seen and never read, and a book should only be read and never adapted into a film, &c &c &c, you have to understand that so many factors have changed since Shakespeare’s lifetime that seeing a Shakespeare play in 2017 is nothing like seeing a Shakespeare play in 1600 and there are many places where a close reading of a play fills in the gaps left by four centuries of history.

Shakespeare’s audience had a much more trained ear than we have today. Shakespeare could have counted on his audience to notice a lot of nuances in sound that a modern audience will almost always miss. A contemporary audience could be counted on to notice differences not only between verse and prose, but between different styles of verse and irregularities in that verse. A modern audience isn’t used to that kind of speech and will often be bored or annoyed by attempts by directors like Peter Hall to maintain verse rhythms in productions. Shakespeare often uses changes in speech patterns to indicate changes in psychological states, and while that can be easy to see visually on the page or to pause and examine, it moves too quickly on the stage for most people in the 21st century to track.

Additionally, there is a problem of pronunciation. Shakespeare’s accent and pronunciation were very different from modern English, either British or American. This has prompted an entire field of study dedicated to decoding ‘Original Pronunciation,’ using a variety of textual clues to determine what the English that Shakespeare spoke actually sounded like. For example, we know that for Shakespeare, ‘love’ rhymed with ‘prove,’ and ‘Macbeth’ rhymed with ‘heath.’ This means that a Shakespeare production would have sounded very different to a contemporary audience, and so many meanings that rely on the sound of words may be lost. A modern audience will miss out on a lot of puns based on now-obsolete similarities in the pronunciations of words, and they will miss out on the structure to poetry provided by rhyme.

There are two minor but related points as well, which have to do with the actual content of the plays. Shakespeare’s plays were often like SNL sketches, packed full of references to contemporary events and politics. The Spanish Armada, the Gunpowder Plot, recent failed harvests and military conscriptions were all referenced in Shakespeare. A modern audience member might not understand the Porter’s jokes about ‘the equivocator’ in Macbeth, but a contemporary groundling couldn’t have missed it. Another thing that Shakespeare could have counted on, was a certain degree of education in at least his wealthier audiences. Shakespeare’s plays are chock full of classical allusions that typically escape a modern theatregoer. How many people in 2017 know who Aeneas was or his relationship to Dido? Could they name the sun god? Or his sun? Of course not all the history and not all the literature is forgotten, and among the more academic types in the audience many of the allusions might still resonate, but you can’t count on it the way that Shakespeare could.

The very last point I would make is that Shakespeare’s plays are usually cut for time in modern performance. Depending on the play, you may only see 60-80% of the text spoken on stage at a performance. I don’t resent that at all, I personally think cutting the text is one of the most interesting and truest ways of interpreting the plays. But a person who only sees the play and never reads will undoubtedly miss out on some wonderful language.

These four points illustrate the biggest reasons why I think that reading Shakespeare is equally as important as seeing Shakespeare. Of course if I spent all my time around PhD literary scholars who hated theatre, I would have ended up writing the inverse blog entry about all the things you miss in Shakespeare if you only read the plays and never see them, all the physical comedy and the music.

I refuse to participate in the debate about whether Shakespeare belongs on the page or on the stage, because I refuse to admit that a dichotomy is necessary. Shakespeare is so rich that privileging any approach at the expense of others robs you of so many opportunities for exploration. But I will fight to the death on the point that theatrical and literary approaches are discrete and equally necessary for understanding Shakespeare. Anyone who dives into performance without a close reading of the text with notes and historical research will misunderstand words, and anyone who reads the plays without ever going to the theatre will miss out on the sounds of the words and the moment when an actor truly brings a character to life in a way that goes beyond what you imagine in your head as you read.

As with so many things in Shakespeare, it isn’t about either/or, it’s about both/and. Shakespeare belongs both on the page and on the stage. Don’t trust anyone who tells you otherwise.