11 Jun 2011

Much Ado About Shakespeare

Neither the professor nor the actor has a monopoly on Shakespeare. His genius is that he wrote texts to be studied and scripts to be performed.

Leonora Eyre
Did you ever stop to think that maybe William Shakespeare didn't really mean to say all the clever stuff that our English teachers made us neatly write in the margins of our Hamlet texts in Year 12 English Lit? Did it ever occur to you that maybe he was just trying to write a play that actors would perform and that audiences would enjoy?

Call me a cynic, but I reckon that more than half of what I wrote in those margins and dutifully regurgitated in end-of-term exams was invented by English professors in the hallowed halls of some University or another, and that most of it never even occurred to the playwright himself. Imagine how boring it would be marking those papers, seeing the same insights being repeated over and over and over again!

Now, before you all lynch me, I am not advocating that we all chuck our Shakespeare texts in the rubbish-bin here - there is merit in a study of the works of the greatest English writer of all time, the author whose words are quoted more than any other. What I am proposing, though, is that a study of Shakespeare should be a pleasant experience, not a chore. I am suggesting that maybe the ultimate goal is to actually enjoy Shakespeare's plays performed rather than just being able to understand and dissect the words that he wrote.

This weekend we are going to see our first Shakespeare play as a family. It's Bell Shakespeare's contemporary interpretation of the Bard's comedy, Much Ado About Nothing, and so I dare say it'll be rather different from the version that theatregoers saw back in the late 1500s.

Which makes me a little nervous about taking our nine-year-old.

Still, I'm reassured by reports that unlike some of John Bell's productions this one is neither majorly gimmicky nor radically unconventional, and I'm hoping that the setting of 1950s Sicily and the modern costumes and minimal scenery will actually enhance Jemimah's introduction to Shakespeare's acted works. Fingers crossed.

We've done our homework. Jemimah has studied Shakespeare's own story, and the life and times in which he lived and wrote. She's been to his birthplace of Stratford-upon-Avon and visited his family home. We've chosen a comedy for our first foray, and Jemimah knows the story well. We've read both Lamb's and Nesbit's retellings, and we've discussed the characters. We've talked about the themes of deception and self-deception, of love and hate. We've talked about how reputations can be destroyed by rumours and gossip, and how people need to trust those they love more. That's all. Now we're going to see the story acted. On stage. For real.

We're really excited.

Maybe later on we'll have a bit of a look at the text of Much Ado. Maybe we'll read sections of it aloud or act a short scene. Perhaps one day we'll even get out our pens and write notes in the margins. But I hope that the words Jemimah writes are her own thoughts and ideas not those of the well-known professors. I hope she writes them because something she has read has struck her as interesting or funny or relevant, not because she needs to write them for an exam.

I'm really hoping Much Ado About Nothing is going to be only the first of many, many Shakespeare plays we enjoy as a family. I'm hoping that Jemimah enjoys the production for itself, and not just because she is studying it for school. I'm hoping that this production will arouse in her the same wonderful feelings that the ballet and the opera do. I am hoping she remembers this night out with affection as a special evening with her Mummy and Daddy and one where her love for the words of the Immortal Bard were brought alive for her forever.

This weekend I hope that Jemimah becomes a Shakespeare lover, not just a Shakespeare student.

I'd be really, really happy about that.


  1. Jeanne... that's it! You propose that Shakespeare is embraced poetically! Many of us are with you. That's what we are discussing at our Poetic Knowledge book club.


  2. Oh, I do hope this is a great production that makes you laugh out loud! I really enjoy this play when it is done well. Meant to be acted, meant to be enjoyed. Forget the academics who have too much time on their hands & too little to occupy their brains. lol

    And you are going to tell us all about it later, aren't you?

  3. Too be honest, Jeanne, I think I suffer from Post Traumatic Shakespeare Stress Syndrome due to being 'forced' to study and dissect Shakespeare in Highschool, when I really was not cognitively prepared for it at all. I needed many more years in the classics before I tackled that stuff, I think. It ruined Shakespeare for me. I am thinking of trying to tackle it again next year, in much the same way you have described here. But I wonder, is it too late for me? Can I ever grow to love Shakespeare now?

    Looking forward to hearing how you enjoyed the performance ........ maybe, just maybe you and Jemimah may inspire me ........

  4. Have a wonderful time. I can still remember when my eldest son was around 5 or 6 and a Shakespeare movie was on TV (can't remember which) and he sat glued to it , not that he understood it, but loved the sound of the words and the music from those words. He went on to enjoy Shakespeare when he had to study it at school - no harm in introducing it to children.

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  6. That was funny, Amy. See the damage of a Cartesian non poetic education has done. In Spain many won't enjoy El Quixote for the same exact reason of what Ganeida so eloquently writes about those 'experts' who have too much time and too little of substance to talk and write about...
    Shakespeare as many other brilliant writers and thinkers, was meant to be enjoyed poetically, that means, read for the joy of listening to it, discussed in our small private and unimportant conversations that are all that really matters.
    I have your same syndrome with Plato, Aristotle, and other philosophers since I study Philosophy and I was forced to read what some professors wrote about them.

  7. Hope the whole family enjoyed the play!

  8. We are lucky to see quite a few (free!) Shakespeare plays each year, and my kids and I have come to the conclusion that we are probably the groundlings...we attend the free performances and laugh most heartily at the low-brow humor. The academic crowd may say what they want about Shakespeare; I say he's funny! :)

    I hope you enjoyed Much Ado!

  9. Cool! Hope you enjoy it.


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