Over here in Shakespeare-land, we have to do a lot of side-step-two-stepping to entice people to see the shows. The #1 issue for the vast majority of people that keeps them from attending a Shakespeare play: “I don’t understand it.”
The experience seems strangely daunting, inaccessible, and downright stick-in-the-mud-ish for most people. Visions of sitting in rigid rows in a freshman English class as a teacher (you can’t really remember her name) poured over every bit of imagery in “Romeo and Juliet” comes to mind and you suddenly have the physical need to escape from the box of a desk that no longer exists.
Shakespeareans spend a lot of time overcoming that visceral response. We talk about how, really . . the play IS in English! We’re not lying! The words are just in a different order.
We explain about “activating the text”—a phrase designed to turn a layperson away from seeing a show—how the actors take specific words in the sentences and punch them and then, sort of, uh, act them out. You know? So if you’re watching the actors, you’ll totally know what’s going on!
We talk about Shakespeare’s audiences and how the majority of them were completely illiterate nor did they speak in verse, but THEY could understand it! Surely, you’re smarter than a 16th century peasant, right?
We try to set the plays in more “relevant” settings, we put them outdoors, we put them in intimate black box theatres, we have preshow discussions to explain the show, we have post show Q & A’s to explain the show AGAIN. We put directors notes in the programs and study guides on the websites.
We go out of our way to ensure that ANYBODY from ANY NEIGHBORHOOD and with ANY set of interests could come and enjoy our founding father, The Bard.
And it actually makes us feel good—especially in the U.S. – this touting of Shakespeare as democratic. He belongs to everyone. Everyone can understand him and own him.
But in this moment, right now. . . . I think that’s bullshit.
No, you don’t have to have money to understand and own Shakespeare. The “cultural elites”, in fact, sometimes have too much rattling around in their overstuffed brains to really own—or enjoy—Shakespeare.
No, you don’t have to know theatre inside and out to own and understand Shakespeare. Experience working with actors is sincerely not required.
And no, you don’t even have to have read the plays to own and understand Shakespeare.
In order to own and understand Shakespeare, you simply have to have the balls to fully invest and partcipate. You can only understand Shakespeare—or enjoy a Shakespearean production—if you make the effort to understand it.
What? Isn’t showing up making an effort?
Showing up is the act of walking in the doors and getting to your seat. You do that every night in front of your TiVo.
But think about it—If a Shakespearean actor went to see any live sporting event, amateur or professional, and simply sat back in his seat, ate his nachos, and stared waiting for something interesting to happen, he probably wouldn’t have the best time. But if he sits forward in his seat, watches the plays, attempts to empathize with the principle players or the coaches or the losing side, suddenly he become caught up in the outcome of the game. Even if he doesn’t understand all of the rules or the terminology, he can tell when something good has happened to those in whom he has an investment and when they’re falling behind. He’ll find himself understanding the game by giving it his full attention and a bit of a personal investment.
It is no different with Shakespeare.
There is a reason so many of his plays begin with a prologue or a lenghtly opening monologue. It is a welcoming, a greeting, and a way of preparing the audience for the play to come. It is a way of saying, “Listen! Think! Imagine! Work with us in telling this story!”
Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth;
For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; jumping o'er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass:
goes a line in the prologue to Henry V. Your job is to fill in this world with your imagination. Your job is to empathize with the characters and to answer their questions for them. Your job is give us the energy that helps to fill in the story.
When any audience member shows up and does their job, they understand Shakespeare. A well told, well spoken Shakespeare play allows audiences to share in the mind of this genius and begin to grapple with the human questions he posed.
When the poetic faith between performer and audience member is achieved, the questions stay with them afterwards and reminds them of a deeply satisfying experience. Entertaining, yes. . . but more. One that helps them wrestle with their own ideas of existence and what it is to be human.
That is not escapism—straight entertainment, “divertissement”. No, it is an activity, and a rigorous one at that. It is something requiring energy and focus.
The people who cannot own Shakespeare are those who show up and do nothing more, who detach themselves from the performance and from their fellow audience members. Who disengage in order to evaluate lesser things in the production.
If a question arises about the choices of an actor, someone who owns Shakespeare will try to answer the question in terms of the character or themes of the production. If they cannot be answered sufficiently that way, then turn to evaluating the acting or directing.
If a concept or idea presented is baffling, ask “What is it trying to say?” Once answering that (or providing some ideas), then make your judgments on how well it was executed or the relevance of the idea.
But mostly, those who own and can understand Shakespeare first experience everything the play can give them and tries to help it along. After that, they tackle the questions of evaluation, relevance, and execution.
Anyone can understand Shakespeare, if they can cowboy up and take it on—invest, experience, listen, and participate!
He’s only the greatest playwright in the English language, if you want to own THAT, you bettah WORK!
first draft -- hdp