To see Shakespeare, “All we need is a stage and actors”

Fiona Banks at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London said: “To see Shakespeare . . . , we need nothing more than a performance space and a company of actors."

Oh. Is that all?

That's a pretty hilarious statement, me thinks, since it is meant to imply that Shakespeare is easily accessible to everyone—all you need is a stage and an acting company.  ;-)  

Anyone who has tried to put on a performance, especially in a small town, knows very well just how difficult it can be to find a venue in which to perform and to gather enough people ready and willing and able to memorize vast swathes of text and rehearse for weeks and then convince people to actually show up to watch it. It's quite an undertaking.

While you're waiting around for that company of actors to appear on a stage near you, grab a friend and a play and start reading in front of the fire with a cup of tea!

And don't forget—if you had a Halloween Shakespeare reading, let us know how it went!

Shakespeare Readers become fierce Performance critics!

It's a funny thing—I see this happen over and over again.  ;-)  Once a person becomes a Shakespeare Reader, especially a close reader, never again can they accept a performance, whether live or on film, at face value. We become fierce critics and spend hours after a performance discussing what the actors didn't understand or how could they possibly misinterpret that particular bit or how could they cut such an important piece from the play! It's hilarious. 

This charming propensity for criticism (“criticism" in the sense of appraisal, analysis, and commentary) shows me several things. One: it embodies the wonderful and personal relationship we can develop with the Shakespearean works if we actually know and understand the plays, which is something we gain from reading. Two: it creates animated discussion points for a community of people who might otherwise have absolutely nothing in common. Three: it stimulates our whole brain because we not only internalize the production on an emotional level, but put into words what we loved or hated or would have done differently if we were to direct the play. And four: the outpouring of passion never fails to illuminate even more ideas. And friendships.

Have you seen a production lately that exceeded your expectations? Or one that wasn't quite up to snuff, in your opinion? Would you have done something differently? Let us know in the comments below!

Halloween Shakespeare!

Halloween is coming right up and what better and more thrilling way to celebrate than by reading Macbeth—out loud and with friends!

Dress up, of course, in the various characters according to the part you are reading: Wyrd Sisters, Hecate the triple goddess, murderers, Banquo a-live, Banquo a-ghost, apparitions (an armed/helmeted head, a bloody child, a crowned child with a tree in his hand), Birnam Wood, a nurse, doctors, soldiers, Lady Macbeth, King Duncan, Macbeth himself, and others.

Get creative with the food and drink and decorations! There are plenty of gory suggestions online. And give yourself the freedom to really ramp up the emoting in your reading—your costume creates an attitude, y'know?

Make sure you grab enough copies of the Readers' Edition of Macbeth, too.  :-)  Remember, there are charts in the book to make it easy to allocate parts beforehand; if you don't use the book, the charts are also right here.

If you have ideas for a party, please tell us about them! After your party, send photos!

You’re not waiting for “Intellectuals” to start a Shakespeare reading group with, are you?

Did you start your Shakespeare reading group yet? Let us know how it's going!

If you haven't started one yet, what's stopping you?

Sometimes people say to me, “Oh, I don't have any friends who are intellectual enough to want to read Shakespeare!” That's the sad thing that has happened to Shakespeare in the past 75 years—what used to be a regular part of the family reading circle in the evenings or an important social gathering outside of work or the home is now perceived as something that only supposed “intellectuals” would indulge in.

But think of the latest movement in Shakespeare outreach—to prisons, including maximum security prisons. Not many of those prisoners would call themselves intellectuals, yet they dive in with a purpose and determination that profoundly impacts not only their own lives but the lives around them. Check out the iReadShakespeare.org page on Useful Books to discover two books about Shakespeare in prisons—one in a supermax facility in Indiana, and a subversive group that read Shakespeare on Robben Island, South Africa.

If that's not stopping you, what is? Let me know in the Comments below!

 

How to read Shakespeare

Just do it. Really. Grab a play and open it up and start reading—out loud with friends!

I have every book ever written on “how to read Shakespeare.” Personally, if I had to read a whole book before I felt confident enough to read a play, I'd never start. The very fact that there are so many of these books is part of what intimidates people to plunge in and read!

If you're pretty new to reading Shakespeare, you might stumble along the way and you might feel you don't understand some stuff, but that's perfectly fine. Take the time to talk about difficult passages. Ask questions of each other. Ask why a character is behaving this way or how someone might be saying this line. Let go of things you've heard all your life, such as, “Hamlet's to be or not to be speech is about suicide" or “Petruchio is an abusive husband.” Read the play carefully and make up your own mind!

The remarkable thing about reading Shakespeare's plays is that you will never fully comprehend every bit of a play the first time you read it, nor even the second or third or fourth time—in fact, you’ll never totally understand every line and nuance and layer. Honestly, every time you enter a play you will discover something new, so do not limit yourself by feeling you have to get the whole thing the first time around. This is a lifetime achievement!

The Readers’ Editions I developed are designed specifically to make reading a play so much easier, but without dumbing it down one tiny bit or losing one word. I'm not very good at selling myself, so it takes a lot for me to say that I truly believe the Readers' Editions are the best way to start a Shakespeare reading group!  There. I said it. whew.

If you've used one of the Readers’ Editions in your group, please let me know how it worked for you, what didn't work, and what you might like to see in future editions! 

 

When Reading Shakespeare, Everyone is Right and No One is Right

There are no right or wrong answers in Shakespeare—the ambiguity is part of what makes it endlessly fascinating.

This has occasionally created a tricky situation in a reading group, where one person tries to insist that his/her thought is the correct reading and wants everyone else in the room to agree with that conclusion. If this person stays in the group long enough, s/he eventually comes to accept that there is always more than one way to understand just about anything in Shakespeare.  ;-)

Only once have I had to gently put my foot down and say, “I understand that you truly believe this is the only way to see this situation, but I encourage you to listen to the other possibilities. Sometimes we have to hold several ideas in our minds at the same time, which is a remarkable testament to this author, a good exercise for our brains, and all of us in the room gain insights from the process. You have a great idea, and let's hold that along with the other great ideas."

If this person cannot accept that, then they leave the group and lose the entire experience. It's sad, but fortunately it's also rare. Most everyone rises to the occasion and eventually learns to revel in that darned ambiguity!

Have you had any difficult situations in a reading group? How was it handled? What did you learn?

Every Shakespeare performance is an interpretation

One very important thing that Shakespeare Readers come to appreciate is that every performance is only one interpretation of the many possibilities. As we discuss the text and talk about the potential ways of acting it, Readers constantly come up with various meanings and actions and attitudes that could present very different performances.

These rich experiences with the possibilities has led to a pet peeve! How many times have I been told that I should not read Shakespeare, that it is meant to be performed and that is the only way I should experience the plays?! Aarrghh!  This annoys me because when I see it performed, I get is one director's interpretation. And if, for instance, a production of A Winter's Tale only comes to my village once in my lifetime (if at all), that one interpretation is all I will ever know of that rich and complex play. And of course it has also been cut, so that's another way I lose part of the experience.

When I read the play—especially out loud and in community—I get to hold all the potential in my own heart. Then when I watch a performance—because reading it makes me want to see it performed—it can round out or inform my personal connection instead of that interpretation being my only experience.

We always learn something from performance, of course. Have you seen a fabulous performance that enriched your reading of a play, one in which an interpretation gave you new insights into the text? Tell us about it in the comments below!

Anti-Dementia Shakespeare

It’s actually true—reading Shakespeare can help prevent some forms of dementia. British neurologist Oliver Sacks has a wealth of experience, experiments, and anecdotes that show how you can challenge your brain to improve cognitive fitness:

“To what extent are we shaped by, and to what degree do we shape, our own brains? And can the brain’s ability to change be harnessed to give us greater cognitive powers? The experiences of many people suggest that it can. . . . While it is often true that learning is easier in childhood, neuroscientists now know that the brain does not stop growing, even in our later years. Every time we practice an old skill or learn a new one, existing neural connections are strengthened and, over time, neurons create more connections to other neurons. Even new nerve cells can be generated.” 
—Oliver Sacks, “This Year, Change Your Mind,” in The New York Times, December 31, 2010

How does this relate to Shakespeare? Reading Shakespeare's language makes our brains work in different ways than they're accustomed to, which forces our brains to create new pathways for understanding. EEGs show that when reading Shakespeare, having to process the unusual use of language, plus the odd construction of the lines written to fit into the iambic pentameter rhythm, excites positive brain activity. For instance, your brain has to work a wee bit harder to re-order the words in this line into a more typical order so we can understand it:

Words, to the heat of deeds, too cold breath gives.  —Macbeth

Working at it regenerates your brain! See the [fake] charts on iReadShakespeare.org for a fun chart to share that shows how reading Shakespeare can improve your brain! Have you felt any difference in your brain since you started reading Shakespeare—out loud and in community? Tell us about it.

Welcome to iReadShakespeare!

I hope you sign up for the mailing list so you receive the blog post in your email box before it appears here. Don’t worry—you will only receive an email every other Tuesday morning, and it’s always short! Plus the email has a couple of extra fun tidbits that don't appear here.

If you haven’t yet done so, check out the article about why the thousands of Shakespeare reading groups in America disappeared. It’s a sad but fascinating story that just might encourage you to start your own reading group, if you haven’t already. And iReadShakespeare.org is here to support you.  :-)

If you have a Shakespeare reading group, please send me your info so I can post it on the list.

with a smile,
Robin