The name of Shakespeare is mentioned and a collective shudder goes around the group. Whether at school, beginner acting classes or even, yes, at drama school, there seems to be a fear of Shakespeare.
I have found evidence of this throughout my entire life and now that I am a drama teacher when I say to my classes ‘This term we will be focusing on The Bard’ I am immediately met by resistance ‘We can’t do that!’
Why does Shakespearian text scare people so much?
Perhaps it’s the archaic language used. To most it feels foreign and impenetrable. Perhaps actors, such as Lawrence Oliver and Judi Dench, have performed his roles so impeccably that the rest of us are scared of not living up to expectations.
I personally feel that the fear of Shakespeare goes back to our childhoods. Many people nowadays won’t have been fortunate enough to see a Shakespeare play as a child and so their first encounter with his work will have been in a classroom. He has been on the exam and national curriculums for longer than living memory and yet, generally speaking, Shakespeare is taught appallingly badly. Forcing children to read around the room, with monotone delivery, text they can barely pronounce, yet alone understand is hardly going to inspire any kind of reaction let alone an emotional connection, and Shakespeare is all about emotion.
This is where English teachers for generations have been going wrong. Shakespeare didn’t write his plays to be read and analysed from an academic viewpoint. He wrote them to be acted. He wrote them for audiences to experience, for them to be taken along on the emotional journey of his characters. Laughing when they laugh, crying when they cry. So how are students across the world supposed to fall in love with Shakespeare’s stories when they are read so dispassionately, divided into lines of ten, no matter which character should be speaking, by a group of bored teenagers?
I, as you may have already gathered, love Shakespeare. I can’t ever remember a time when the opportunity to read, watch or perform his plays didn’t excite me. Ultimately I went to drama school and trained to be a professional actor but my love of Shakespeare goes further back than this. Back to school. Where I WAS fortunate enough to have a brilliant English teacher; Mrs Leech, I still remember her now, we used to call her ‘the fountain of all knowledge’ a nickname I don’t think she ever knew. Mrs Leech would make us take on a character from each scene and act it out, ensuring that we focused on the feelings of who we were playing and not worrying if we mispronounced or stumbled over the text or grammar. This brought the words off the page. It was funny, especially when my friend Alice impersonated a donkey, it was devastating when two young lovers, little older than ourselves, decided they would rather die than live apart.
We weren’t just learning about one of the most prolific writers or all time, we were learning about emotions. Emotions we, hopefully, would never experience ourselves. We were learning about the ‘human condition’, learning empathy. What can possibly be more important than that?
So now, when I teach or talk about Shakespeare more than fifteen years on, I am excited. I now know all about iambic pentameter and rhyme schemes and how to study the text to acquire all the knowledge you need to find the truth of your character and I love talking about it and passing on that knowledge. But this all came later. It started with a love of the stories, of the characters and of the amazing worlds Shakespeare provided for us.
Shakespeare, whether he is one person or many (as conspiracy theorists would have us believe), was a genius. He used language in a way that is both linguistically and emotionally intelligent and, directing from beyond the grave, he tells actors through his writing exactly what he needs us to achieve.
So I urge you. Buy a Shakespeare play and read it. But not in your head, read it aloud. Start to feel the rhythms of the text which, like music, can pull on your emotions. Go and see a Shakespeare play. Don’t feel daunted, read an abridgment so you understand the rough story and then just listen. Like opera, if the actors are good you will know what is being said, even if you don’t understand every word.
Shakespeare is an artist the likes of which the world has not seen before or since and such a vital part of our culture. We use words and phrases today as part of our everyday lives that he invented. Ever been ‘green eyed’ with jealousy? Or had something that ‘vanished into thin air’?
Start to find the joy and love in Shakespeare, let go of the fear and enjoy experiencing something people have enjoyed for 400 years.
For more tips on Shakespeare follow our blog as next time I’ll be delving into how the actor should approach a Shakespeare text and if you want to have a go, sign up for our two-day Summer Shakespeare intensive. For more details contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Olivia HutchinsonBACK TO BLOG