The Merchant of VeniceWith only a few notable exceptions, I haven’t been very lucky with theatrical productions of Shakespeare. Of course, I’ve seen the Olivier and Branagh movies and some fine BBC productions, but film isn’t really theatre.
In the theatre, especially here in New York, bad Shakespeare generally outweighs good Shakespeare. The problem with these productions, I find, usually stems from a distrust of Shakespeare’s language, either of the audience’s ability to understand it, or of the actors to speak it.
I’ve seen the tragedy, Timon of Athens, played with irrelevant slapstick stage business fit for the Marx Brothers. I’ve seen a production of The Merchant of Venice, which contains subtle hints of homosexuality, embellish that subtext by dressing its characters in day-glo robes and platform shoes, like bit players in The Rocky Horror Show, and having them mince about in degradingly stereotypical fashion.
I once even saw a Royal Shakespeare Company version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which Titania, while speaking some of the most sensual love poetry ever, was lying on her back using her bare foot to massage Bottom intimately, driving him to eye-rolling ecstacy, as if the language weren’t already making enough of an erotic point. (Unfortunately, I did not see Ian McKellen or Patrick Stewart in their recent appearances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which I heard were wonderful; before I could muster myself to making the trip to Brooklyn, all tickets had disappeared.)
School didn’t serve me well in regard to Shakespeare, either. In junior high, I was forced to memorize speeches from the plays, an exercise which at the time seemed roughly equivalent to driving spikes into my skull. In college, Shakespeare was served up in categories: Shakespeare and feminism, Shakespeare and gender, Shakespeare and race, Shakespeare and politics. Shakespeare sliced and diced—and reduced. But I persevered in my interest, not so much because I knew that Shakespeare was a cornerstone of Western culture, but because I recognized even then that his plays provided an experience like no other. Still, I remained seriously under-Shakespeare-ed. I only knew about a dozen of the plays, and only half of those well. So, at a certain moment in my middle years, I determined to read my way through all of Shakespeare, play by play, even the ones to which Shakespeare is said to have contributed only a scene or two.
Reading Shakespeare for the first time presented its own problems. Although I’m a fairly sophisticated reader, I never exactly settle back in an overstuffed armchair in a book-lined study for an uninterrupted evening’s reading. I read on the bus. I read while I’m eating my sandwich at lunchtime. I read at the end of the work day, when I’ve got to fight to keep my eyes open, and I’m getting crankier by the minute because the neighbors’ dreadful music is pounding through the wall.
Shakespeare requires concentration. You can’t just scoop up great blocks of text and process them. Not when the lines are chopped up in odd ways, the punctuation seems to fall in peculiar places, and some words appear to be arbitrarily capitalized. Where are the stresses? Where are the pauses? When do you slow down? When do you speed up, so that the words come “trippingly on the tongue”? And then, of course, you have to figure out what the vocabulary actually means. When Hamlet talks about bearing fardels, you have to switch to the glossary to find out what fardels are; and before you know it, you’ve lost the thrust of the soliloquy, much less the drama. Never mind the jokes and puns; by the time you figure those out, they’re no longer funny.
How is it that actors, good actors, trained in Shakespeare’s verse, can deliver that same soliloquy--fardels or no fardels--and make it seem perfectly comprehensible to an entire audience? Peter Hall, the famous British director, in an essay in Exposed by the Mask, thinks that the clues to playing Shakespeare are to be found in the verse itself (in matters such as where a line ends, or where a half-line meets another half-line; the relative strengths of a colon versus a semi-colon; the balance of the iambic pentameter of the early plays, and the freedom to be found in the cross-rhythms of the mature plays). “To study Shakespeare without regard for his form,” he writes, “is like studying a score when you have never heard a note of music.”
I wondered if the secrets used by actors in acting Shakespeare could provide some useful guidance in my reading of Shakespeare? I vividly recalled a nine-part television series that I saw in the mid-eighties, Playing Shakespeare, in which director John Barton and a number of RSC actors including Judi Dench, Peggy Ashcroft, Ben Kingsley, Ian McKellen, and Patrick Stewart, held a series of acting workshops in which they discussed Shakespearean text and performed illustrative bits, shaping them for maximum effect, clarity, and shades of meaning.
I was taken with the idea of finding a copy of these shows for re-viewing and discovered that, at one time, a set of video cassettes had been produced by an educational company and was sold for a cost of about $800. Aside from being prohibitively expensive, they no longer seem to exist. There were also rumors of the existence of a DVD, but the Internet clues were too Byzantine to follow, and I suspected they would lead only to frustration. The good news is that these tapes are still held in both the research and the circulating portions of the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center.
If, however, you can’t devote time to watching at the library, or if your antique VCR is no longer functional and home-viewing is an impossibility, a transcript of the shows is readily available in paperback, as well as to borrow from the library. Although lacking the significant dimension of having the actors actually performing excerpts of the plays, the book is still lively, informative, and contains material indispensible to any actor.
The book also provided lots of insight for this regular reader of Shakespeare, who has no intention of ever getting up in front of an audience--insights I’d never be able to find in a hundred books of Shakespearean literary criticism. Nowadays, after reading both Peter Hall and John Barton, I like to think I can approach an unfamiliar play like Pericles or Troilus and Cressida, plays which I’m never likely to see performed, set the stage of my mental theatre any way I like, and recite the lines in a mellifluous voice which sounds remarkably like John Gielgud’s. Provided I don’t open my mouth.