Talking about Shakespeare
“He feels that often at a Shakespeare play, audiences do not understand the lines, and are there in spite of themselves. They are spectating, but really bored throughout.”
Reading that, I was surprised, not by the observation, but by the man to whom it was attributed -- Sir Derek Jacobi, the distinguished English actor and director, whose profession calls for learning and understanding Shakespeare’s lines, and then acting, literally, as their interpreter for audiences. It points up a critical issue: all too often that does not work.
According to Actors Talk about Shakespeare, “Jacobi’s goal in studying verse speaking ‘comes from a great desire to make the play accessible to an audience.’ ‘My aim is to try to discover a way to share the play with them just as if it were a modern play.’”1
The problem is hardly new. In 1623, two of the playwright’s fellow actors mentioned it in introducing the First Folio:
So read him—and again, and again! If then you do not like him, surely you are in some manifest danger of not understanding him; and so we leave you to other of his friends, who, if you need, can be your guides. If you need them not, you can lead yourselves, and others.
“And such readers we wish him,” wrote John Heminges and Henry Condell. I concur—heartily! -- but it’s clear that many of us face much perplexity today, despite the intervening years of study and commentary by a great variety indeed of readers and audiences.
But is the problem growing worse?
More than ten years ago, Gary Taylor, one of the 1986 Oxford Shakespeare’s editors, wrote, in The Guardian 2, “All reputations, even the most powerful, at some point begin to diminish. According to my measurements, Shakespeare’s reputation peaked in the reign of Queen Victoria 3, and is now shrinking. … Already in our classical theatres the shrinking of Shakespeare has created more room for other playwrights. As Shakespeare gets smaller, the available cultural space for other writers gets bigger.”
In 2007, USA Today reported 4: “They’re calling it ‘the unkindest cut of all.' …[R]esearchers for a non-profit group say fewer colleges appear to require students to study the influential author.
“Just 15 of 70 institutions studied require English majors to take a course on Shakespeare,
says a report by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a Washington-based group
that promotes academic quality. At least six of those schools dropped or weakened requirements since 1996, when the group did a similar study.”
The group “credited an institution with having a Shakespeare requirement if a majority of English majors have to take either a course on Shakespeare or two out of three single-author courses on Chaucer, Shakespeare or Milton.”
Among the findings: only one Ivy League school, Harvard, required Shakespeare study.
Anne Neal, president of the group, said that being awarded a bachelor’s degree in English without the study of Shakespeare “is tantamount to fraud.”
Also from 2007: “Ignorance about Shakespeare is so widespread among teenagers that thousands are failing to score a single mark in the key school test on the works of Britain’s greatest writer,” the Telegraph reported 5 “Five per cent of pupils—nearly 30,000—who sat the … English exam got no marks out of a possible 18. Meanwhile, one in five scored three or less, and 65 per cent achieved less than half-marks.”
Shakespeare’s plays “are no longer compulsory…. Relegating him to less than a fifth of the Key Stage 3 test marks since 2005 has led to claims that the world’s most famous playwright is being sidelined in his own country.”
Yet consider this 2010 news release 6: "The Shakespeare app for the Apple iPhone and iPod Touch passed the 1 million mark for number of downloads this week. The free Shakespeare app, a cooperative project between Readdle and PlayShakespeare.com, was in the first wave of apps just after Apple® launched the iTunes App Store in August 2008.”
The latest calls for the greatest.
1 Mary Z. Maher, Actors Talk about Shakespeare, citing, on Page 68; a 1985 interview, in Shakespeare Quarterly.)
2 Gary Taylor, in The Guardian, Saturday April 24, 1999
3 When she died in 1901, she was Queen of Great Britain and Ireland, and empress of India.
4 Mary Beth Marklein, “Shakespeare Is Not To Be at Most Colleges,” USA Today, April 18, 2007.
5 Julie Henry, “Teenagers failing their Shakespeare tests,” the Telegraph, October 7, 2007.
6 “Shakespeare App Hits 1 Million Mark: A Million Bard-O-Philes Can’t be Wrong.” Odessa, Ukraine, April 25, 2010.
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