It’s April 23rd, and you know what that means: only 362 days until the next 4/20, hang in there everyone.
But perhaps less importantly, it’s the international holiday commonly known as “Shakesversary”. Of what, you ask – his birth? His death? His interment in the cave, only to rise again on the 26th? (That’s what a christening is, right?) The answer is that like 80% of Shakespeare’s life is up for debate, so really April 23rd is a day for us.
In accordance with that, high school teachers all over the globe today are mourning the fact that they can’t just put on Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet for a few days and get their grading done in peace, which I’m now realizing is what was going on when my seventh-grade social studies class watched 2001: A Space Odyssey for like an entire week. (They’re very similar in that they both have an intermission and I was similarly confused by the directorial choices at the end.)
And in accordance with that, high school students all over the globe (get it? Get it? This is the kind of quality humor you can expect from this blog) are spamming my Quora feed with questions like “why do schools make students read Shakespeare’s plays when they were originally meant to be seen?”
I usually ignore these questions despite being asked to answer them at least twice a month, but in all transparency I didn’t have a blog post ready for today and I figured I could knock this one out in a day.
The common-sense answer is “because your teacher is caught up on their grading and knows you’d just watch tiktoks if they left you alone in the dark.” A less facetious answer might be “because your teacher wants to talk about poetic techniques and Shakespeare is very good at using them and it’s kind of hard to analyze a poem after hearing it spoken once”.
Seeing a play might be more entertaining than reading it, but unless you’re paying attention, which high school students usually aren’t, you’re not going to be able to answer much more than surface-level questions about the plot or how the play made you ~feel~. That’s not good pedagogy.
What’s also not good pedagogy is peddling the tired maxim that “Shakespeare should be seen, not read.” It’s a lazy oversimplification that absolutely everyone repeats, and it only serves to convince kids that their reluctance to do their assigned reading has historical justifications.
Yes, Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences had what could charitably be described as a sliding scale of literacy. Shakespeare’s plays were circulated in printed form, but not widely, and not by him. When he wanted people to read his work, he published it himself. Plays were a live medium.
But the way we conceive of what constitutes a play now is totally different than how Shakespeare would have. We can do our best with original staging, Original Pronunciation, 1 reconstructed venues, and traditional casting (it’s always really great when we get to take roles away from women in the name of authenticity). But we can’t resurrect Richard Burbage and put him on the stage.
Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be performed only so long as the people they were written for lived. An actor like Burbage became Hamlet, and he became so inextricably linked to that role that when he died, the parts he originated and made famous, the roles that “lived in him”, as an anonymous elegizer (not a word) wrote, died with him. 2
This may not have been true of a playwright like John Marston, or Thomas Dekker, who sold their services to whatever companies would buy their plays and presumably had little hand in casting them. But for a playwright like Shakespeare, who knew his actors and wrote his parts specifically for them, Will Kemp was Falstaff, and whoever stepped into his shoes could never quite live up to the original.
So yes, Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be seen and not read. But they were meant to be seen one way, acted by one person; or, if they had to be acted by someone new, acted the same way as the old person. Watching a cool new postcolonial interpretation of The Tempest is way less true to Shakespeare’s original intent than reading the version of the script carefully curated and edited by his friends.
Me, personally, I love cool new postcolonial interpretations of The Tempest. And I’d much rather see a well-directed Merry Wives than slog through it on my own. But it’s pretty damn hard to do a production of All’s Well that doesn’t make you feel really gross about having watched it, and it’s absolutely impossible to figure out what’s going on in King John without some textual footnotes to help you out. Teachers know what they’re doing. (Unless “what they’re doing” is classroom management over zoom in which case I think they’re figuring it out as they go.)
So, in conclusion, happy Shakesversary, 3 do your damned homework, and if you’re not in school anymore the RSC is offering a 30-day free trial of their streaming service so you can like, put your laptop on a shitty metal cart and pretend you’re being graded on not checking facebook.
- I feel like I have to recommend at least a few books here, so check out Pronouncing Shakespeare: The Globe Experiment by David Crystal for a quick but fun retelling of the Globe’s decision to mount Romeo & Juliet in OP in 2004. ↩
- Simon Palfrey and Tiffany Stern make this argument in Shakespeare in Parts, which I will write about on this blog when I get around to reading the last 60 pages, and probably also in Tiffany Stern’s Rehearsal from Shakespeare to Sheridan, which at $54 used is a bit outside my budget for a single book so who’s to say. ↩