Monday, August 25, 2008

Teaching Shakespeare as Literature

Shakespeare originally wrote his plays to be performed before a mostly uneducated and illiterate audience. Writing plays was Shakespeare’s “job”---he earned a modest living from writing and producing plays. He was not writing for “art’s sake” but for “food’s sake”. The old adage, “necessity is the father of invention” is particularly true in Shakespeare’s case. The point here is that Shakespeare’s plays were written to be performed on stage. Most of his plays did not appear in print until well after his death. For this reason, many gurus of education are arguing for a performance-based approach to teaching Shakespeare. If the plays were written for the stage, then they should be taught on a “stage”.

Peggy O’Brien from the Folger Library (one of the largest and most significant Shakespeare research centre in the world) writes, “Performing a Shakespearean scene or scenes is the single most important part of a student’s Shakespeare education. Period.” She may be right, but there is too much pressure on educators to use Shakespeare primarily as a drama unit rather than literature unit. The dramatic aspect of Shakespeare lends itself well to a performance-based approach. However, his plays run deep, much deeper than the average audience-goer would understand. This is the reason why Shakespeare can be, and should be, taught as literature. A student’s exposure to Shakespeare needs to be more than simply “working towards performance”.

Had Shakespeare been writing three hundred years later than his own time in history, he may have chosen to write novels as opposed to plays. His characters have a psychological complexity and depth that surpass most theatrical characters in Elizabethan drama; some of his characters are unsurpassed by present-day drama. Essentially, Shakespeare wrote his plays “deeper” than required for successful stage performance. In fact, I argue that some of Shakespeare’s plays “read” better than they are “performed”. So much of the “drama” in the play Macbeth, for example, is so internal and psychological that I have rarely watched a great on-stage performance of it (no fault to the performers or directors). It is a play, I believe, that is better read than watched. In some ways, Shakespeare is like a novelist trapped in a playwright’s body.

That being said, Shakespeare still works well on stage. The plays were as popular in Elizabethan England (for the most part) as they are now (if not more so). However, I find that my enjoyment of “Shakespeare performed” is different from “Shakespeare read”. Sometimes, my enjoyment of Shakespeare performed is, in part, due to the fact that I have read the play beforehand. As educators, it is important that we expose our students to both performance enjoyment and the enjoyment of a close reading. Why did Shakespeare include so much symbolism and metaphor in his plays, when so much of it would be lost on his audiences? Perhaps there is a bit of “art for art’s sake” in Shakespeare after all.


Amirhosein AHA said...

I can't agree more
The joy of Shakespeare being read far surpasses Shakespeare being watched
and I still can't imagine how he could had personificated all those viewpoints and thinking styles by himself...

Barbara said...

Along this vein of Shakespeare as literature, what do you think of Charles and Mary Lamb's book "Tales From Shakespeare"? As you said, he may have been a novelist in another time. But does that justify someone else giving a retelling of Hamlet in 15 pages?

I think it is actually a pretty great way to introduce his stories to someone who is overwhelmed by the length and language of the plays (and certainly the Lamb's do not 'dumb down' the language (first published in 1807, it is eloquently written).

Can I make this comment even longer by adding the first paragraph of their "Hamlet"? No I better not. Why don't you and your lovely wife come over and borrow my copy of the book :-)

Jeremy W. Johnston said...

Hey Amirhosein,

Thanks for stopping by. There is certainly a great deal of debate over who (or how many playwrights) actually wrote "Shakespeare" plays. I am of the mind that Shakespeare himself wrote his own plays. Somebody had to be the genius behind them; why not him?!


Jeremy W. Johnston said...

Hey Barbara,

I own Lamb's classic Tales from Shakespeare and I also own Leon Garfield's excellent Shakespeare Stories (1985). Thanks for the offer ;) though!

I am an ardent supporter of simplified, prose renditions of Shakespeare, especially for young readers. It serves as a gateway to the originals down the road. The more someone understands of the play---plot, characters, events, etc.---the better one is able to enjoy the complicated (albeit rewarding) language, imagery and symbolism of r-r-raw Shakespeare. When teaching Shakespeare I encourage my students to read the scene synopsis provided at the beginning of each scene. Once my students understand what is happening, they can enjoy how and why it is happening.

By the bye, I also highly recommend Jim Weiss from Greathall Productions, who has created audio versions of Shakespeare for children (Romeo and Juliet, Taming of the Shrew, A Midsummer Night's Dream) []. Weiss has done an incredible job with all sorts of classic stories. We get his CDs from the library (I would have lent them to you otherwise...).