I’ve been doing Shakespeare as a PhD student for several years, I did Shakespeare before and I will be doing Shakespeare long after I’ve finished my thesis, I suspect. In this blog I want to reflect on how we do Shakespeare, and whether we might not consider doing it differently, or at least consider different ways of doing it, alongside the existing methods.
I was almost halfway through my studies before I realised the implications of seeing Shakespeare’s plays as records of performances, usually on an open air stage before large numbers of ordinary members of the public. I concluded that how I go about doing Shakespeare might need to reflect this reality more, and set out to start up a community reading group, Sheffield’s Shakespeare, in order to pursue this idea.
Most of us have ‘done’ Shakespeare in classrooms as part of a curriculum constructed by governments and delivered to generations of children. When the National Curriculum was drawn up in 1988, Shakespeare was the only compulsory author. The revised national Curriculum of 2014 requires GCSE students to read and write about “at least one play by Shakespeare”, stating that all students must “read and appreciate the depth and power of the English literary heritage”. Little has changed since compulsory education was first introduced in the early twentieth century, when “attitudes to Shakespeare were very much influenced by nationalist pride”. Shakespeare has been used as a tool to inculcate what were and still are seen as moral truths and national virtues in young people.
When we study Shakespeare we bring these mores with us to our study, and other ‘values’ too, such as assuming the need for “close reading” in order to appreciate the unique quality of the Bard’s writing. Recent developments in literary criticism have emphasised the need to study the historical context of the plays in detail as well, though this also usually amounts to close reading of original texts, called historiography.
People read Shakespeare in private and derive much pleasure from it. Some academic engagements with Shakespeare are seriously exciting and some performances of the plays riveting. Nevertheless, it’s clear from all this that we are brought up to revere Shakespeare passively. We watch and read Shakespeare broadly in silence, and tend to limit our engagement with it to what we are familiar with.
I find myself increasingly wanting to do Shakespeare differently; to strip plays down or mould them anew or fragment them into mini-dramas and perform them in the street, in public spaces and in impromptu ways. I want to play with Shakespeare; involve people from many backgrounds; hear him done in a range of voices and from a range of cultural perspectives. I want people to make use of the material of Shakespeare in innovative, novel and experimental ways, just because we can, and because the material lends itself to ingenuity and audacity.
If we were to sing, dance and rap Shakespeare’s narratives we would only be indulging ourselves in experiences similar to those which Shakespeare’s audiences enjoyed, as song, dance and clowning were common, both within plays and at the end of them. If we were to parody, purloin and rewrite Shakespeare we would only be doing what he and his fellow playwrights did to each other’s work, with the same sense of license.
I see Shakespeare as a bag bulging with endlessly adaptable resources that anyone can dip into, so as to pull out a tool or guise with which to express themselves, a way of exchanging ideas with others. Look out for ImpAct Performance Group, which will be starting soon, and will attempt to offer people the opportunity to do just this.
Further info: @shefshakespeare