Brush up your Shakespeare

5 02 2013

Brush up your Shakespeare

I was introduced to the great Bard when I was 10 years old.

I saw my first live performance of Hamlet in the Lyric Theatre in Belfast. It was an intimate performance space staging a dark and brooding interpretation of the text. The story had me gripped from start to finish. I loved the passionate dialogue beautifully delivered by the Northern Irish actors, the stunning Elizabethan costumes and the tense, energetic stage combat sequences. I was hooked and became a devoted fan of Shakespeare that night, a passion that has remained with me to this day.

My parents took me to see Hamlet to quash my desire to work in the acting industry or at least to educate me about the existence of genres other than pantomime. They could not have predicted my response and my Dad endured my enthusiastic evaluation of every moment of the performance during the car journey home.

That evening marked my introduction to the world’s greatest ever playwright and up to the point when the actors walked onto the stage and started to speak, I had no preconceptions about Shakespeare whatsoever. There are no words that can express how grateful I am to my parents for giving me this experience but also the theatre company for creating such a memorable interpretation of what remains my favourite play of all time.

It was a combination of my own lack of fear or judgement when I watched this performance and the skilful delivery of the actors that enabled me to develop an ear for the language. My parents had never used “dumbed” down language at home with me, if I didn’t understand a big word I would simply ask what it meant. Their use of language also encouraged me to deduce the meaning of words from context. I was taught the importance of good grammar and corrected if I used ‘saw’ instead of ‘seen’ or ‘did’ instead of ‘done’. Language was valued in my household with a mother who was a linguist and a father who shared my love of the stage. However I am regularly reminded that my experience is not exactly typical.

The mention of Shakespeare in the hearing of most teenagers is usually greeted by much sighing, rolling of eyes and inarticulate groans, (reinforcing my view that they need better language skills with which to express themselves). I am not suggesting that Shakespeare’s cannon of work will ever be universally loved by all, but it is disheartening to discover that much of the fear and distrust of Shakespeare exists before students have ever even opened one of Shakespeare’s plays.

Students tell me what their parents thought about learning Shakespeare or their older brothers and sisters. Sometimes they confess to a bad experience of being asked to read a lengthy monologue aloud in an English lesson with difficult words that they couldn’t pronounce. (There are many amazing English teachers who deliver ‘Outstanding’ lessons about Shakespeare). During my teacher training I was horrified the number of trainees who were nervous about teaching Shakespeare. I am equally dissatisfied by the quality of some of the independent training bought in by schools and passed off as education, not to mention the clumsy attempts by some theatre companies to put their own stamp on these wonderful stories.

While I personally love traditional interpretations of Shakespearean plays, I am definitely in favour of modern adaptations and am not concerned by editing as even I do not want to sit for 4 hours in a theatre. The universal themes of the plays will ensure the stories always remain relevant to a modern audience but as the language becomes less assessable in an age obsessed with more visual stimuli and a low attention span, it is inevitable that directors will chose to edit the material and use modern design elements to engage with new audiences.

So to go back to the title of this post: Brush up your Shakespeare!

Get to know the intricate plots and diverse characters. Engage with the universal themes and opportunity to explore the human condition. Don’t let the language put you off, try to work out the meaning through the context or say the words aloud and see if they remind you of other words (after all, Will did invent a fair few words and phrases in the English language). Finally, if you have a bad experience in an English lesson or see a boring version of a play, don’t write it off immediately.

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