Welcome back, Reader! I’ve decided we need a shift in focus this week, so I hope you’re ready!
What I’m about to say I’ve touched upon before but would like to elaborate upon it here. Look back to my first post for a minute and recall that I defined Bardolatry as a worshipping of Shakespeare so fanatic that the term is derived from the word ‘idolatry’. And just as there are as many ways of following religion as there are followers, Bardolatry can be practiced in a number of ways, as well. In my opinion, the major schism here is between:
– Those who appreciate reading Shakespearean texts and developing their own interpretation out of the infinite possibilities
– Those who find meaning through performances of Shakespeare’s plays, either because they follow the ‘it was written for the stage so it must remain on the stage’ philosophy, or because they believe that Shakespeare’s work is far too esoteric (difficult) to understand if read, and therefore must be translated by a director in order for people today to properly understand it.
I’ll tell you straight away that I follow the first school of thought. It’s true; I do have an advantage of having studied English in my undergrad and exclusively Shakespeare in my postgrad. That being said, I still don’t read Shakespeare without exhaustive footnotes. Why would I? The world’s greatest Shakespeare scholars reading over my shoulder, explaining Shakespeare’s 400 year old inside jokes? Yes, please! Relying on a single interpretation by a director? Well, I’ve seen some great ones but I’ve also seen some pretty painful interpretations of Shakespeare. Each word, phrase, and comma in Shakespeare’s works can be interpreted in a number of ways, and I am not holding my breath for a director to portray Shakespeare’s ‘truth’ because, in my opinion, there is no one concrete Shakespearean meaning. Instead, each and every one of us develops our own version of the ‘truth’ in our imaginations. That being said, Shakespeare can write one thing and mean three different things at once – he’s just that good. We can read and understand all three proposed meanings at once but a director has to make a decision regarding which standpoint he or she will take. Why? Although one phrase running three different directions works in our imaginations, it’s difficult (if not impossible) to seamlessly provide that same effect on stage or screen.
And then we come to the next split within Bardolatry: stage versus screen. This is something I referred to in my last entry. Film, surprisingly, is more like a printed text in the sense that you can pause, rewind, and fast-forward, just like you can put a book down or re-read the same lines over and over again, until you can understand them! While stage acting is more spontaneous, leaving the possibility of comic improvisation, the characters in your film will never change their actions or words, just like the characters in the text. One major benefit to film is that the camera can focus on a single character, really zooming in on a character’s emotions. This makes it easier for those who don’t understand Shakespeare’s words on the page because they can suddenly see the emotions that Shakespeare is writing about. Yet, the director’s focus also forces you to see only who the director wants, and not necessarily the actions and reactions of each and every character at once. That is the effect you’d see onstage, getting a more unified view of the characters and how each interacts with the others.
I’d like to mention specifically that I don’t think stage productions are less important than film productions. At the same time, I will not follow those who profess that each Shakespeare film is a perversion of the original because, as I say, there is no ultimate ‘truth’ to pervert. Film is a newer medium, so it’s an easy target of criticism, but I’ve also seen enough terrible productions that shame the age-old practice of stage performance. I’ve seen both stage and screen productions that I’ve loved and ones that I’ve absolutely abhorred. The most important thing, though, is that I learn something with each viewing. And that’s great, but what about beginners who haven’t read the plays to the extent that they’ve developed their own interpretation yet? Just as some scholars worry that those who are new to Shakespeare won’t understand the millions of meanings within the texts, I worry that those who are new to Shakespeare are too easily susceptible to taking one director’s interpretation for granted as that illusive ‘truth’.
The solution? Well, there’s no perfect solution but I think the ‘high school approach’ is a pretty good one: read a scene on your own, come back and discuss with the friends, have it explained by someone who understands it (a teacher, a friend, Sparknotes, etc.), watch the movie, field trip with friends or classmates to see a production. That way, you already know the contentious issues that Shakespeare was dealing with when writing the play, you see how film directors recreate it for modern viewers, and then you see how theatre directors spin it, and in the end you can think to yourself ‘I like it this way best.’ And there you have it, something you can be proud of: a well-informed opinion on something Shakespearean!
So what I’d like to do, Reader, for the next couple of weeks is look at some different Shakespeare films and stage productions and see what we can get out of them – the helpful and the hindering. As always, feel free to post questions, comments, and suggestions! Let’s have some fun!!!