I was also under the impression that reading Shakespeare—which seemed about as amusing as climbing Mount Everest or perhaps getting your teeth pulled—separated the literary wheat from the chaff.
When our high school teacher mentioned Shakespeare, he was usually met with eye rolls. We all preferred Dickens, and that’s what we got. Our teacher knew better than to try to force feed us the Bard.
And yet there was Romeo and Juliet !
And Hamlet !
«To be or not to be» !
Antony and Cleopatra!
We had all heard of these; some of us swooned at the mention of Romeo and his sweet Juliet (these were the Zeffirelli years). But the text seemed indecipherable. Exhausting. Daunting.
Then, years later, my youngest son Christian came along. In his fourth year of high school, his English teacher, Mr. Guinty, assigned him several scenes from Hamlet. He was instructed to analyse them and decode their meaning. When he got home, he immediately sat down and went to work. No hesitation. Line after line. After line. I think he could have gone on all night.
When I read some of his homework, I was astonished. It made so much sense. It was so competent! He really understood it. I could never have done that.
That was the first sign that Christian had a special relationship with the dramatic works of William Shakespeare and that for some reason (genetic mutation?), he was in his element and thus happiest when reading, learning or acting those extraordinary four hundred and fifty year-old lines.
Being part of his life these past ten years has allowed me to continue my education. I watched him perform in a terrific adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the Dawson Theatre Collective. I’ve also seen him in the role of Tybalt (Romeo and Juliet) at LAMDA’s Linbury Theatre. And in a few weeks, he’ll be performing the role of Malcolm in Macbeth.
But honestly, if I’ve grown to love the works of Shakespeare, and if I now agree that he’s the greatest dramatist (and writer) who ever lived; and if I now can sit, rapt, just listening to Shakespearian verse, it’s in large part because of all of the lines I’ve heard Christian rehearse, what I’ve learned about iambic pentameter; and it’s also about all of the movies and teleplays we’ve watched together.
It’s about the language. Beautiful, sonorous and hypnotic.
This has inspired me to try to convince you (or remind you) that the works of William Shakespeare have no expiration date and that they can be enjoyed over and over, without ever losing their relevance or their power.
I think that going straight to the text would probably be a mistake for most people. I suggest a three step approach:
- Watch the plays.
Live is best.
In London, last September, I was able to catch a performance of Richard II at The Globe, an extraordinary open-air theatre that runs 8 months a year and is right in the heart of London. I was a groundling—that is, I had standing room only tickets that put me at arms’ length of the actors on stage. From the first sound of the horns that introduced the opening act, I was enraptured.
But watching Richard II on television is pretty great too.
The DVDs in the Library’s collection are of two types: made-for-television dramatizations of the play, including BBC, CBC and Statford Theatre Festival productions, and also movies made for the big screen.
Included among the made-for-television dramatizations are the BBC’s Antony and Cleopatra and the exquisite The Hollow Crown series (which includes Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V) ; Nicol Williamson’s Macbeth on BBC, and also Trevor Nunn’s production of the play for television, featuring Ian McKellen and Judy Dench.
Other dramatizations made for TV and available at the Library include: Othello (with Anthony Hopkins), The Taming of the Shrew, Titus Andronicus, and Kenneth Branagh’s BBC production of Twelfth Night.
But if you watch only one, then you really must watch Laurence Olivier’s King Lear. Olivier was 75 when this dramatization was broadcast in 1983, and it was his last performance of a Shakespearian work. It’s heartbreaking and powerful and deeply affecting. As King Lear is inevitably stripped of his vanity, pride, power and sanity, Olivier and the character he’s playing seem to become one in their fragility and humility. The story and the language flow and transform the audience. A towering performance. A beautiful production.
The Library’s shelves are also filled with fantastic movies. If you want a challenge, then over a period of time, you can watch the many cinematic interpretations of Hamlet, and decide whether your favourite Hamlet is Kenneth Branagh’s, Laurence Olivier’s (my least favourite!), or Mel Gibson’s (unfortunately, Ethan Hawkes’ performance is not part of the Library’s collection).
Or you can watch some of your favourite British and American actors taking on the challenge of The Merchant of Venice (Pacino), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Christian Bale, Stanley Tucci, Michelle Pfeiffer, David Strathairn), Much Ado About Nothing (Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton, Keanu Reaves, Kate Beckinsale).
The one I plan to see is Orson Welles’ incarnation of Othello. That must really be something!
And then there’s Coriolanus, directed and starring Ralph Fiennes, which I went to see at the AMC Forum 22 with two stage actors. I had never heard of the play, and my experience of it in the cinema can be described, appropriately, as one of shock and awe. Fiennes is extraordinary: deadly, soldierly, savage and tragic. The play is reset in what appears to be the Balkans in the late twentieth century. On a smaller television screen, its power is still sure to reach you.
- Listen to the plays in audio form.
Once you’ve seen several plays, are comfortable with their plots and can easily imagine their settings, then why not focus on the language, and listen to audio recordings of them.
All of the discs in the Library’s collection are either radio plays or full dramatizations, and many of the greats are available (you could start with Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits). Like being read to by the greatest, most animated readers in the world.
- Read your favourite plays.
Finally, there’s the texts themselves. Braver readers will have already taken the plunge while others may still be a bit skittish.
Last week, when I was helping Christian practice his lines for his role of Malcolm in Macbeth, I had an engaging, humbling and challenging time reading the lead-in lines of the other characters OUT LOUD.
That, you see, is your first decision. Do you read them in your head or do you declame them? I’m all for declamation, if you can find a quiet room. Experiment! Find the meter! Be stentorian! (no one will ever know except the people who already love you).
Or else read them quietly. Or better yet, listen to a recording with the printed play in your hands: the words will come to life! (it’s certainly a gentler and less gruesome way to experience Julius Caesar or Coriolanus!)
Have I sold you on the idea? I sure hope so.
Reading, listening and watching the performance of the works of William Shakespeare makes the heart thunder, the throat tighten, the gut clench, the soul sigh and the spirit soar.
Note– All of the following published plays are available at the Library*:
Antony and Cleopatra, As You Like It, The Comedy of Errors, Coriolanus, Hamlet (in multiple editions), Henry IV, Henry V, Julius Caesar, King Lear, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Macbeth, Measure for Measure, The Merchant of Venice, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, Richard II, Romeo and Juliet, Sonnets, The Taming of the Shrew, The Tempest, The Winter’s Tale
(*Many of these are edited by Roma Gill)