The Telegraph's Ed Cumming wrote a piece late last week in response to Dame Helen Mirren suggesting students shouldn't be introduced to Shakespeare by reading. He wrote
"...a true appreciation can only come from reading the plays... though formally speaking he wrote plays, Shakespeare has his position because he is the greatest poet in our - and possibly any - language... it is baffling that we are still having this argument... After all Shakespeare's colleagues Heminges and Condell had already worked it out when they composed the preface to the First Folio. 'Read him therefore, again and again,' they wrote..."
It is indeed baffling.
I'm lucky that I spend much of my life working with Shakespeare, either as an actor, a writer, a workshop leader or teacher. I shift the focus away from the persistent view of his writings, that they are books to be read, and more seen as plays to be performed. I find ways to make them accessible without dumbing them down, breaking them open by putting them back into context.
When the actors Condell and Heminges in the First Folio (the book containing all of Shakespeare's plays, but not his poems) bid us 'read him therefore, again and again' they could have meant 'take into account', or 'make something of', two equally valid definitions for the word 'read'.
It makes more sense: 80% of people back then couldn't read. They were used to seeing his plays performed, to hearing them; and later with their memories echoing, reflecting on what they had seen and heard. What better way to 'make something of him therefore, again and again' than by providing a manual for future generations to re-stage his plays.
Each one is a guide on how to perform an incredible story. They were written by an actor, for the same group of actors, who worked together for over twenty years. Shakespeare's company became so well versed in their master playwright's ways they would have had no trouble understanding what was written.
They would, after all, be introduced to the new play by receiving only their character's lines, and would have had little notion of what it would be to 'read the whole play'. If they were to, it would be as a skilled chef might describe the taste of a dish from looking only at the recipe, or a musician hearing Mozart's Requiem simply by reading the score. But these skills take years to develop, and require technique, passion, and practice.
Dame Helen Mirren was on the right track. Reading Shakespeare is hard. It would be wrong to argue that his plays shouldn't be put under great literary scrutiny, but as a means of introducing people to them, it can be off-putting. Shakespeare rightfully holds a fixed position in our English Literature heritage, and on the syllabus, but the balance between literature and theatre has long needed to be redressed.
Why isn't Shakespeare first introduced to us in schools by drama teachers? There has been a growing move away from teaching Shakespeare first and foremost as a work of Literature, and approaching the plays in their natural environment rarely fails. Meeting characters who are speaking out their thoughts, feelings, and problems, gives students something more tangible to latch on and relate to.
To really start enjoying his plays we do need to work at them, but 'five minutes reading through some speeches beforehand' isn't enough either. We need to encourage a broader knowledge: become familiar with the theatrical world he wrote in; try to get into the heads of these characters he gave life to; and become fluent in 'Shakespearian' so the words don't take us so much by surprise.
Being encouraged to speak those terrific words every day, and seeing as many different performances as possible, both on stage or screen, amateur and professional, in English or not, will go a long way to help nurture a fledgling appreciation.
It's sad but true, there are productions that leave young people bored: who hasn't felt that way at some point? Every production and interpretation won't suit everyone. But both on stage and in the auditorium, we need to shake off the notion that these astonishing discussions of the human heart and mind are merely beautiful pieces of poetry; and we must work harder to keep them alive, as plays.
Yes, he was a wonderful poet, but his life was theatre. Both approaches to his writing need attention - and we must keep trying to find new and different ways to make something of them.