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Reading Shakespeare

Posted on Dec 25, 2014

Filed Under: books

My reading goal in 2014 was 52 books (one per week). I ended up reading 66 (and counting). My tentative goal for 2015 is to read all of Shakespeare's 38 plays.

I started early with The Merchant of Venice.  I read the text first – it's quite short, but slow, slow going. Shakespeare being Shakespeare, the writing is not…straightforward.  To call it “flowery” would be an insult to flowers.

I bought a book which, along with the script, had a scene-by-scene, Cliff Notes-ish companion. All throughout, I was dismayed at how much I was missing. I would read a scene, then read the summary, and realize that huge parts of it had gone over my head.

In an effort to better understand it, I figured I should watch a performance of it.  Completely by luck, I stumbled on an amazing collection of 14 YouTube videos comprising the entirety of a 1974 TV special.  I watched the entire thing, while reading along with the text, and I learned a lot about the performance of drama:

  • The timing is quite different. My copy of the play had only Shakespeare's original stage direction, which were minimal. People would make huge speeches, which you could only imagine them standing there and doing as a grand monologue. But in the video, people stopped talking, then moved around the set, then started talking again.  Or they had huge pauses between words that ran together in the text – some sentences, when spoken, began in the middle of a verse in the text, and ended in the middle of another verse. Watching this gave so much more context.  What seemed to be a strange, clearly Shakespearean monologue turned out to be something much less awkward and obvious, broken up between many different actions and gaps in speech which made it seem more natural.

  • There is emotion, in voice, facial expression, and physical performance.  In regular fiction writing, you have adverbs.  Someone can say something “angrily” or "happily."  In a script, you have no such direction – you just have dialog and stage direction.  Watching Shylock's reaction when he realizes his daughter has run away made me understand that he blamed Christians for it, and was so happy when Antonio's ships were sunk, so he could get his pound of flesh.  Watching Laurence Olivier delver this is scene is just amazing. Later, when Gratiano mocks Shylock, and when Shylock screams upon being sentenced – mere words in a screenplay just cannot convey the emotion of these scenes.

  • There is physical context.  When the play is being acted out, there are props and rooms and a sense of physical space.  The scene where Portia's suitors are selecting “caskets” made so much more sense – they were actually small chests, not the funeral caskets I was envisioning. When the actors were delivering the lines in a decorated set, so much more made sense than it did when you had nothing but the text.

(Also worth nothing about this play in particular: it's anti-semitic as hell.  It's uncomfortable in its stereotypical depiction of Jews. I'm wondering if every bigoted perspective of Jewish people as greedy money-lenders came from this play. The character of Shylock the Jew is a grand collection of every negative cliché associated with the Jewish people.)

A script is a tough read in general.  I'm beginning to wonder if my goal to “read” Shakespeare should perhaps instead be a goal to watch a performance of each of his plays, while following along with the script. There's no doubt that I'll have to watch each play to make sense of it, and would it be…legal, to do my reading of it at the same time?

Indeed, was drama meant to be watched, rather than read?  Can you read a play and expect to comprehend and appreciate the full weight of it?  I think when you have a combination of (1) language and verbiage very different from contemporary usage, and (2) minimal stage direction, this makes it very hard to envision and understand what's going on.