One of the wonderful things about becoming interested in Shakespeare is that there are countless “intro to Shakespeare” books to choose from. Some better than others, yet they all seem to have one running theme; if you truly want to learn to enjoy Shakespeare, it’s best to see a live performance. But is it really?
One argument says, the way to enjoy Shakespeare is through his use of language. Hearing a performer utter his immortal words breaths life into them and we instantly understand why he has remained the world’s most beloved poet/playwright. Another argument says we should trust that the actors have done the hard work for us. It is only through their understanding of the words and the meaning of them that we can come to appreciate what Shakespeare was trying to convey. We are also reminded that Shakespeare wrote for the theater, not for a reading audience.
While both arguments on the surface appear to be sound, they don’t always hold up. I would argue that this approach could actually turn someone off to Shakespeare and give the impression that Shakespeare might not be for everyone. It is a disservice to the reader of these intro books to insist they run out and view a live production, when these very authors themselves learned to appreciate Shakespeare by reading and attending plays. Not one of these authors has ever admitted to never having picked up a play to read, so why do they insist we skip this so obvious a step?
One of the main problems I have with this advice is that I’ve seen first hand what happens when someone sees a play for the very first time and becomes disengaged. Oh they may enjoy bits and pieces of the play, but over all, most first time audiences admit feeling a little lost or frustrated and instinctively know they’ve missed something important. This is doubly the case when the production in question is fraught with problems and actors who rush through the lines as if they are getting paid by the word; some of Shakespeare’s greats lines can be lost when poorly delivered. A poor production or bad acting is a missed opportunity to introduce Shakespeare to a new audience.
I may have mentioned this before so forgive me for repeating myself but one of the best examples of a missed opportunity happened a few years ago. I attended a production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream with some friends who were new to Shakespeare’s world. The actors spoke with such rapid speed that even I had a hard time keeping up. A friend turned to me and asked, “what the heck are they talking about?” As I leaned in to answer, the woman sitting in front of me turned and said she wanted to know too. This was no way to introduce newbies to Shakespeare!
There is no shame in admitting that some of what you are seeing is confusing, but it is a shame that much of the confusion could have been minimized had you read the play first. Oh I admit, reading Shakespeare can be confusing too, but at least with a book it is possible to do a second read or look at the notes for clarification. This is a wonderful introduction to Shakespeare as reading allows us to take our time and savor the words and become fully engaged with the lines. Once you have seen what Shakespeare wrote, it’s much easier to spot when hearing come out of an actor’s mouth. And let’s be honest, because some of the language is outdated it can be damn near impossible at times to enjoy Shakespeare’s word play without some kind of guide. Editor notes become the door in which to enter Shakespeare’s world. Not some actor who just uttered something incomprehensible.
Love’s Labour’s Lost is a perfect example of this. This is one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known and produced plays, yet it’s also some of his best work. We don’t usually associate Shakespeare with satire, but LLL shows us that if he wanted to, he could have been just as famous for his satire as he is a dramatist. Shakespeare makes fun of higher education, the arts, love, lust, and social status. He even makes fun of poets who spend hours agonizing over penning the perfect sonnet.
The premise of this comedy is fairly straightforward and surprisingly simple compared to the other convoluted plots he concocted. A king and three of his friends decide to make a pact and give up on women for three years in order to devote all of their time to studying.
Navarre shall be the wonder of the world
Our court shall be a little academe
Still and contemplative in living art
Of course this doesn’t work out. The King of Navarre has forgotten that he is to host the French princess, who is on her way to Navarre to talk about the surrender of Aquitaine. And of course, accompanying her are three French ladies. Obviously the men don’t keep their pact and spend most of the play trying to find ways to woe their chosen lady without the other men knowing about it. And as with all of Shakespeare’s comedies there is a proper fool (Costard), and a Spanish nobleman (Armado) who is the unintentional fool. Some of my favorite lines are delivered between the two.
Armado: Villian, thou shalt fast for they offenses ere thou be pardoned.
Costard: Well sir, I hope when I do it, I shall do it on a full stomach.
I hadn’t read the play in years and forgot how much fun it is. As I got more and more involved I found myself laughing out loud and could easily “hear” the character’s individual tones and inflections. I wondered why this play fell out of favor; its modern screen adaptation is Kenneth Branagh’s only major flop. But soon it became very apparent why we rarely see it, and why notes are all but mandatory with this play.
Shakespeare’s contemporary audience (and possible some modern U.K. audiences) would have been familiar with rudimentary Latin. For some, it may have been a second language. Shakespeare was all too familiar with Latin, as he makes fun of Latin lessons in The Merry Wives of Windsor. But unfortunately, most modern audience members would quickly loose interest and wonder, “what the heck are they talking about?” when Costard and Armado begin to spar in Latin or at least they think they are speaking Latin, which only makes matters worse for the reader; this is the play in which Shakespeare famously uses the very long word; honorificabilitudinitatibus.
I marvel thy master hath not eaten thee for a word;
for thou art not so long by the head as
honorificabilitudinitatibus: thou art easier
swallowed than a flap-dragon.
According to the OED “flap-dragon” was a game in which players “catch raisins out of burning brandy and, extinguishing them by closing the mouth to eat them”. Costard is telling Armado’s page, Moth, that he so small he’d be easier to eat than a flaming raisin. He uses honorificabilitudinitatibus (a state to be able to receive honors) in an absurd manner and shows us that despite his over confidence in his ability to get one over Armado and his page, he has no idea what he is talking about, and neither would a modern audience.
Now could you imagine what you would be thinking if this was your introduction to Shakespeare? You might feel the urge to run out of the theater or at least throw your hands up in desperation. “Good god, old English is hard enough, but Latin, Latin??!”
In order to fully learn to enjoy Shakespeare it’s wise to keep in mind that while he wrote specifically for the theater, he wrote for a specific theater audience. The language has changed since his days at the Globe and we cannot always fully grasp his words, no matter how good an actor is or how long he has studied Shakespeare. Sometimes stage directions or bad acting distracts the audience. Once this happens you’ve lost them, and they in turn have lost any interest in Shakespeare.
Thankfully when reading a play we can pause and look at the editor’s explanation or make a few notes, like I did, to look up some terms. Then, once familiar with the words or terms, go back and re-read the exchange in order to fully appreciate what Shakespeare is doing. It’s usually quite amazing.
So as we celebrate Shakespeare week with theater, movies, games, parades and parties, remember, its okay to pick up a play and read it. And it would be wonderful if you used it to introduce someone to Shakespeare.
William Shakespeare Love’s Labour’s Lost. Signet Classics edition
Oxford English Dictionary online edition