The Bard of Stratford-Upon-Avon is taking over Toronto! With several productions of Shakespeare’s works currently on stage or coming up next month (for more details see my Waiting in the Wings post for September), I thought it was a prime time to talk about my favourite playwright, William Shakespeare. I absolutely understand the apprehension around seeing Shakespeare’s works, but that’s why I’m here: to hopefully help assuage those fears and get you out to see some truly awesome theatre!
My main piece of advice is this: don’t get too caught up in the language or try to understand every word. I feel like this is where folks get the most tripped up with Shakespeare, and rightly so. The flowery language Shakespeare often uses can be very overwhelming, especially if you’re trying to comprehend the meaning of every word on the fly. Instead, listen for the context and meaning of the phrase. If you take in the whole of the phrase the character is saying, the meaning might become more apparent, even if a word or two might trip you up. Let the feeling and the emotions of the actors saying the words take you on the journey through the play.
This feeling of “I won’t get it” often comes from our first interactions with Shakespeare, usually in your High-School English class. But in those classes you’re often only reading and analyzing the text, which is a hefty job even for a Shakespeare scholar who has spent their life devoted to Shakespeare’s canon. See, even in Shakespeare’s day, people weren’t going to be reading the play prior to seeing the performance. On the contrary, plays weren’t really printed unless they had done well in performance (making books was very expensive so they had to be sure it would sell). So unless your teachers had the foresight to have you watch either a filmed live production or a movie version of whatever play you were studying before you read it, you end up looking at these plays as something to unravel and unpack rather than just enjoy them as the entertainment they’re meant to be. Not that this is a bad thing, mind you, I think it’s just where a great deal of people get turned off by Shakespeare, and then get this notion that he’s some untouchable, unknowable, semi-deified being. He’s more accessible than you think, and his characters much more human than the other writers of his age.
Another element that often gets included in performances of Shakespeare’s works is audience participation. It’s fun! Don’t be afraid to laugh, clap, or call back if the actors ask for it. It’s meant to be engaging and entertaining, for both you and the actors on stage. Canadian Stage’s As You Like It which is currently running in High Park (closing September 4th so get your tickets!) makes a great use of this, they even ask an audience member to read some lines at the end of the play! From personal experience, the comedies lend themselves to this type of interaction a bit more than the tragedies, but with performances of Who’s Afraid of Titus and Merchant of Venice coming up at the intimate Red Sandcastle Theatre space, I might be proven wrong. Shakespeare has had the staying-power it has because there is always something new to discover with every production. His stories explore so many aspects of humanity that as a new human puts their stamp on the play, something different and beautiful emerges. Getting to be an audience member and witness this beauty brings me such immense joy, and I truly hope that you’ll go to a Shakespearean play this summer or fall and experience that joy as well. Whether it’s your first time seeing Shakespeare live or you’re a seasoned pro, I think that Shakespeare is always worth the time. And remember: it’s fun, folks, it’s entertainment! Relax, and have a good time. It’s what Bill would have wanted you to do.
On a more personal note, I bought my first book of Shakespeare stories for kids (Top 10 Shakespeare Stories by Terry Deary) from a Scholastic Book Fair (remember those?) when I was about nine years old. When I was approaching my 29th birthday, a friend of mine pointed out that it meant that I had basically been studying and watching the same playwright for the vast majority of my life. I really hadn’t thought of it that way before, but he was right. My love affair with Shakespeare’s works goes back as far as I can remember. As I mentioned at the end of my post, what I love is how my opinions have changed as I’ve grown as well. I’ve seen productions when I was young that I didn’t fully appreciate until a full decade later. I’ve found something new with every production of Shakespeare’s I’ve seen, truly. It really does bring me joy. When I finally got to act in a touring production of Henry V in 2018, I was on Cloud 9. To get to breathe life into the words which I’ve studied and enjoyed for so long was truly a gift. I understand that Shakespeare might not be for everyone, but I guess what I’m hoping is that maybe I’ll have inspired someone who might not otherwise have bought a ticket to go and try it out. You never know what you might discover!