Reading Shakespeare

The other day I was perusing the Shakespeare 2020 Facebook Group, like I frequently do these days, and saw an interesting question from one of the other group members. (I can’t find it now, but thank you!). Any she was fairly new to Shakespeare and wanted to get opinions from other members on how best to approach the plays. Should she watch a production and then read? Or read and then watch a production? Or read while watching a production? It’s an excellent question that is worth exploring beyond a Facebook comment.

The immediate response is to shout from the rooftops “SHAKESPEARE IS NOT MEANT TO BE READ.” That’s not particularly helpful though because many people, including myself, will encounter Shakespeare through reading. Without a doubt, performance is the best way to experience Shakespeare, but let’s see what can be done to make the reading experience more meaningful.

To start, I would not recommend reading alongside a performance, whether filmed or live, because multitasking leads to a worse experience in both aspects. If you’re staring down at the text, you’re going to miss the nuances of the performance that make it meaningful. It is nearly impossible to follow the text if you are only glancing down occasionally. I suppose you could stop and start a film to look at lines you didn’t quite catch, but that’s going to be disruptive to the viewing experience. I would do one or the other.

I can’t honestly say whether reading before or after a performance is better. I’m leaning toward reading first because I think some familiarity with the text allows for a better appreciation of the choices made by the cast and crew. It’s a toss up though because I think either way, you will experience something new every single time you encounter the text. Let’s be honest, you can’t go wrong with Shakespeare.

If you are going to be reading Shakespeare, there are a few things you can do to help make the experience easier on the first go. You can always read it multiple times. This option, while enjoyable, is going to take a decent amount of time. I don’t know about you, but I don’t usually have that kind of time. So, how can we make the initial reading experience more impactful?

I personally start by reading a brief synopsis of the play, just to familiarize myself with the basics of the plot. This is a crucial step for me because I struggle much more with the text when I’m just trying to figure out what is going on. The language is undeniably difficult, which can make it nearly impossible to appreciate the nuances of the text during a cold read. The more figurative language gets lost in the search for basic plot points. I find that when I have some idea of the basics, the initial read is much more impactful.

There are a lot of great options out there for finding a good synopsis. The Globe Guide to Shakespeare is a comprehensive guide for every play. It includes an act by act synopsis, the sources Shakespeare used, and a performance history. The Shakespeare Book is an excellent quick-reference guide. Plus, it looks gorgeous. The Essential Shakespeare Handbook is a good mix of the two books listed above. It’s not as comprehensive as the Globe Book, but has more information than The Shakespeare book. You really can’t go wrong with any of these. It just depends on how much information you want before you dive in to the text.

Now, it can also be difficult to understand a text when the meaning depends so heavily on the emotion behind the words. This is why people tend to dissuade others from reading Shakespeare. However, finding performances can be a challenge, particularly with some of the less popular plays. Additionally, most performances cut down the text for the sake of time. Some may only cut a few lines here or there, but others eliminate entire subplots. It can be really hit or miss.

As I started working through the Complete Works, I found myself wondering how I could find unabridged performances to help me. Actors bring a depth to the plays that would otherwise be lost. It can help to at least read the text aloud yourself, but that can still be tough, especially if you’re new to Shakespeare. I knew I needed professional help.

I found a free version online, but it was so poorly done that it was no longer helpful. The actors clearly all recorded on their own with no direction and it was slapped together. Everything was very disjointed. Some of the actors were more subdued while others were overly animated. Some were loud, some were quiet. The accents didn’t match even a little bit. I was so distracted by the performance that I missed out on what was actually happening. It was bad.

Then, I started poking around on the apps that work with my local library and found an unabridged audio performance that I could borrow. It was the best of all worlds. It was unabridged, free to me, and beautifully done. The performances were the ark angel recordings. They have a professional cast (including David Tennant sometimes!) and a clear direction that leads to a smooth production. I cannot recommend these performances enough. They have helped me through some of the most difficult text.

And that’s it. I find these two easy steps make the reading experience much more significant. I know the gist of what happens, so I don’t get stuck on the most basic plot points. This allows me to really appreciate the language. Then, I get professionals to portray the emotion and handle important things like timing, so I don’t have to try to figure out the “inner monologue” of a character. The performance gets that across. Combine the two and the reading experience is more meaningful even on the first read.

That’s what I do, but what are some of your tricks for reading Shakespeare? Let me know in the comments below!

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