Bottom from Isango Ensemble's adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream (New Vic 2015). Photo credit Ruphin Coudyzer.
This article was originally seen as a 2013 New Vic blogpost.
Over my ten years of teaching Shakespeare at New York University's Steinhardt School, I have made it a practice to ensure that young people join my graduate students for our exploration of Shakespeare's plays.
Occasionally, I've had students ask why young people should study and perform Shakespeare's plays given that they were written four hundred years ago and come from a very specific Western tradition. I find that the perceived resistance of young people to Shakespeare often comes from their teachers' own fear of and discomfort with Shakespeare's plays. The "inaccessible" language; the complex and sprawling storylines; and the density of the scripts make for a daunting task in any unit of classroom study. I overcome these hurdles by engaging young people in a problem solving, mystery-cracking approach to the scripts, rather than a bookish quest to understand the meaning and interpretation of every word or phrase on the page. Tackling a Shakespeare play in an active way builds confidence, and that confidence translates to other academic and artistic tasks.
To assist my students with their understanding of Shakespeare's work, regardless of age or experience, I ask them to consider five basic ideas about the cultural context of Shakespeare's plays and their dramaturgy. Those five ideas are as follows:
1. Shakespeare wrote his plays for a wide, popular audience.
Shakespeare's plays appealed to people from all walks of life and across class divides: kings, queens, nobles, workers and the poor. His plays were considered popular entertainment in his day, much like the blockbuster movies and television shows of today. If Shakespeare were writing now, I'd venture to say that he'd write for film and prime time television. He understood how to reach audiences of all ages and experiences, and when young people understand that, they gain confidence that their interpretation of a play could actually be valid and "correct." If we empower young people to find their own relationships to a play, suddenly that play becomes legible and relatable.
2. Reading, watching, and playing Shakespeare can be like working in a second language.
Even though Shakespeare wrote his plays in English, his style of writing is heightened and his vocabulary is vast. As English speakers in the 21st century, our relationship to language is very different from Shakespeare's and his audience's. When we work with Shakespeare, there may be words or whole sentences that are unclear. When watching Shakespeare in performance, encourage young people to look for other ways to understand what is happening: stage pictures, the tone of an actor's voice, lighting, etc. These elements can provide clues that clarify the difficult parts of Shakespeare's language. When reading a play in class, remind students that the English language has three end punctuation marks: periods, question marks and exclamation points. The arrangement of the verse and prose on the page can look confusing, but when I locate the end punctuation marks, I'm suddenly reminded that this is a language I understand—it's just arranged on the page a bit differently. Ask students to mark the sentences with brackets when they encounter a particularly difficult passage; isolating sentences leads to identifying a character's thoughts and ideas.
A scene from Fiasco Theater's production of Measure for Measure (New Vic 2014). Photo credit Joan Marcus.
3. Shakespeare provides all the information we need in the writing on the page.
If we spend ample time reading one of Shakespeare's plays, we learn that all the clues we need to understand the play are there on the page in front of us. He gives us the setting of the action in the lines of the play, and has his characters tell us how they feel and why they behave a certain way. For example, we do not have to guess about Hamlet's state of mind when he discovers the truth about the death of this father, because he tells us that he will "put an antic disposition on." I like to work with young people on Shakespeare in performance because their often limited life experience does not detract from playing these characters. Since acting the play is not an exercise in emotion memory or sense memory (Shakespeare came before Stanislavski and his system of acting), young people can perform these plays effectively, simply by becoming adept storytellers. Of course, close connections to the experiences of the characters are certainly helpful, but by focusing on what the character says, an actor can discover what needs to be said and how it needs to be said in order for the story to unfold.
The title character from The Acting Company and the Guthrie Theater's production of Henry V (New Vic 2009). Photo credit Michel Daniel.
4. Shakespeare wrote his plays for a simple stage.
Shakespeare's Globe Theatre did not have the capabilities of modern theaters. Theaters did not have helicopters flying in or sets that rotated by themselves. Therefore, Shakespeare had his characters tell the audience where they were, either in conversation with one another or in a speech directed to the audience. Oftentimes, the audience in Shakespeare's time had to imagine the setting of a play more than we do today. Given this expectation of simplicity, Shakespeare's plays can be staged in theatres, gymnasiums or classrooms. We don't need fancy lighting or scenic elements or even extravagant costumes—we just need an actor or audience that's willing to imagine what Shakespeare's characters describe. If we encourage actors of all ages to see what they say as they say it, then young audiences will see the world of the play before them, as well.
5. Shakespeare's characters are often superhuman or extraordinary, so they feel and act that way.
Shakespeare wrote his plays before the existence of modern psychology. While it helps to think about why a character behaves a certain way, Shakespeare did not always concern himself with logical reasoning. In other words, our modern notions of what is realistic are very different from Shakespeare's. The characters in his plays may make choices that seem very foreign to us, but those choices make sense within the worlds of Shakespeare's plays. Given our diverse and ever-expanding society, this understanding of cultural context as it relates to Shakespeare can also help young people to recognize that their own points of reference are not the only way to experience the world. People behave differently in different contexts, and having an increased awareness of that helps us to teach young people about tolerance and understanding within our growing, globalized society.
So why Shakespeare? Because the complexity of his work has survived the last four hundred years and still offers us opportunities to ask big questions about ourselves and the world around us. Like all of us, young people want to make meaning of the world around them, and when a complex, parallel world opens up for them, our own cacaphonous, fast-moving world might just become a little bit easier to navigate.
Joe Salvatore is a playwright and director based in New York City. He has created and directed plays and performances in venues of all shapes and sizes, from traditional spaces like the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village and the Concert Hall at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, to site-specific locations like 14th Street in Manhattan and a Revolutionary War battlefield in southern New Jersey. Read more about Joe here.