This week we began with a discussion of a recent New York Times article, “Teaching a Different Shakespeare From the One I Love” by Stephen Greenblatt, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/13/magazine/teaching-a-different-shakespeare-than-the-one-i-love.html?_r=1. Mr. Greenblatt explains that his students do not wish to devour and master the language of Shakespeare in the same scholastic way that he did, but rather that they experience it more instinctively, more creatively. He writes that “[m]any of [his] students may have less verbal acuity than in years past, but they often possess highly developed visual, musical and performative skills,” or in other words, they way in which Shakespeare wrote his work to be absorbed.
As Professor Geddes explained to us in class, in the 18th century there was scholarly debate, the poets won out, and Shakespeare was deemed literature. In my mind, this mistake has cost us hundreds of years of accessibility and connection to the work. Shakespeare is the world’s most famous playwright, and to negate that prestigious title on the grounds of some ‘stuffy, old, white male academics said so’ is simply no longer acceptable.
We live in an age of conversation. We are all held accountable for what we do or don’t say, especially in the online world. Artists have increasing pressure to create work that not only embodies their own personal views, but also creates an inclusive and “unproblematic” space for their fans to share. The benefits and detriments to these conversations are a post for another time, but the fact remains that for better or worse the conversations are happening. Writing becomes the most narcissistic form of communication, because you have the luxury of making a statement without having to listen to any type of response. Therefore of course academia wants Shakespeare to remain “literature,” because it allows for a quantifiable “right and wrong” way of understanding it.
A live performance is a dialogue. Actors feed off of the tone of the room, the response from the audience, and their fellow performers, creating an ever-evolving interpretation of the work. No show ever runs identically to another performance, there are an infinite amount of variables from vocal inflection to outright staging malfunctions that drastically alter a performance. You may not catch every rhyme, but you know the emotion the actors are conveying. Reading body language and gesture are inherently human traits, and we rely on this skill as a way to interpret the story we’re being told. An engaged audience responds to the emotions their being shown, whether it be with applause, cheers, or stunned silence. This is an incredibly undervalued way of experiencing storytelling, and one that can in no way be replicated by any other medium.
It does not take courage to speak at somebody, but it takes great skill and strength to speak to them. The reason academics have shunned theatre as a means of storytelling is because it moves. It changes. There is not only one right answer, and without a clear right answer, however can they exclude people from their elite club of “correct interpretation?” The snobbish academic elitism that implies that there is only one way to experience a play, by reading it on the page, is losing ground in favor of more visceral experiences. Greenblatt laments this, saying: “when I ask them to write a 10-page paper analyzing a particular web of metaphors, exploring a complex theme or amassing evidence to support an argument, the results are often wooden; when I ask them to analyze a film clip, perform a scene or make a video, I stand a better chance of receiving something extraordinary.” I argue to you, Mr. Greenblatt, that you have been experiencing Shakespeare all wrong. If you’re entire experience of a play is the written script, you have missed out on ninety percent of what Shakespeare wanted you to learn. You look upon language as your coat of arms, but there are no borders in a digital world. Your students have reached a level of human understanding and interaction that circumvents your iron gates, because they react to Shakespeare in a way that makes his work feel alive.