Note Well: A Warningg
One professor’s definition of “a classic” -- something everybody wants to have read, and nobody wants to read -- became widely known after being cited in a speech by Mark Twain.
It now pertains, unfortunately, to Shakespeare’s plays, which have been made, artificially, in school, difficult to appreciate through reading.
Theaters should be correcting that for us, by making performances helpful revelations. But as John Simon put it, “Shakespeare’s ambiguous fate is to be the greatest playwright in the world—as well as the most manhandled, disfigured and besmirched.”
The dramatist’s “muggers” today, the theater critic has noted, “boast of preserving most of his text, while blithely inflicting the weirdest physical assaults, crazed actions, absurd modes of delivery, preposterous sets and costumes, scene reversals and out-of-context lines.” Shakespeare “becomes all but unrecognizable, but the director is lauded as a genius by a whole contingent of latter-day Fools.”
And literary critic Frank Kermode once remarked that “most criticism is produced on academic assembly lines, and is usually derivative, mechanical and very hard to read.”
Scholarly writing about Shakespeare’s plays is generally as helpful to an actor as volcanology is to a volcano.
As for his editors, respect is due those who sweat, in striving to achieve clarity; but too many others just rumple dry sheets. T. S. Eliot was asked if he concurred with the belief that most editors are failed writers. “Yes,” said the poet, “I suppose some editors are failed writers—but so are most writers.”
Today, as a result of poor public perception of Shakespeare’s plays, even seeing them staged may not help an audience much, if the director and actors do not themselves grasp meaning and significance—let alone nuance—in the words they speak.
Good performers dislike reciting pointless-seeming lines. Educators hate having to “teach” material they themselves don’t understand, and their students loathe having to run textual gauntlets.
The resultant widespread dissatisfaction has grave consequences: a 2012 survey of children and adults in the United Kingdom found that, of the 2,000 adults questioned, half were unable to complete the line, “O Romeo, Romeo, .…” And nearly one-third of the youngsters under 13 do not know who William Shakespeare was.
Past pupils stand at the front of today’s classrooms, and they serve as the school-board members who consider curriculum questions—and decide, in hard times, what to cut.
Are you ready to bid Shakespeare farewell?
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