Everybody has a talent. Some are incredible athletes. Some can paint like you can’t believe or can solve complex mathematical solutions at the drop of a hat. Some can stand in front of crowds, bare their souls, and tell stories. But even among those who live and love theatre, there are those who just don’t understand Shakespeare. While that baffles me, I sat through enough middle and high school English classes to learn that, while I adore and easily understand Shakespeare, there are thousands who don’t. So how do people find their “in” to Shakespeare, the key that unlocks the door that makes it all make sense?
Some, like me, were introduced to Shakespeare at such a young age that it was almost like a second language. While this was an incredible gift, it left me puzzled as to why my classmates couldn’t understand what I had somehow learned through years of watching my uncle in plays or by reading the children’s “condensed” versions of Shakespeare that my mother brought home by the armful. Recently, instead of letting this puzzlement of mine go on any longer, I sat down with two of my college professors, both of whom specialize in Shakespeare, looking for tips and tricks to connect with the stories and characters that were put to paper four hundred years ago.
What I learned surprised me, which is why I want to share it with you. When I sat down with my English professor Kathryn Moncrief, we almost immediately started talking about the History plays. This may not be the case for everybody, but the stereotypes I have heard make History plays seem even harder to connect with than Shakespeare’s other works. I recently finished performing in a production of Henry V at Washington College and can’t wait to work on Henry V again at ASC in Session One. I asked Professor Moncrief how we (audience or actors), are supposed to connect with great kings seeking the throne of other countries. I don’t know about you, but I’ve personally never tried to conquer a country, and can’t imagine what that would be like. We spoke about a multitude of different ways to understand Shakespeare and his historical characters, such as using your audience and historical research, both of which are excellent ideas I highly recommend. What I got stuck on were the people behind these historical characters. For example, one of my characters when I performed in Henry V was Lord Scroop, who, while a close friend of Harry, leads a small group of traitors paid to murder him. How are we supposed to relate to a Lord who tried to assassinate a king? Can we even do so? Maybe not, however, you could relate to a man who is confused and angry at the world, blames it on someone in power, and tries to fix everything himself before realizing how far he has gone down a dark path. That is someone who, though maybe not trounced up in livery or bearing a title, you could meet in the street even today.
I followed this train of thought to another professor’s office. I sat down with one of my theatre professors, Brendon Fox, and we began a long and lively discussion of how one can find Shakespeare and make it their own. We talked about technique and passion and how to “blow the dust off” of Shakespeare, and he also mentioned something that carried along the same path I had explored in my earlier conversation. “Every Shakespearean character,” Professor Fox said, “is a human being going through the most amazing and awful moments of their life.” When reading Shakespeare, many people get caught up in the characters’ flowery language, and never stop to consider why the characters speak this way, assuming it was just Shakespeare’s style, and something readers and audiences have to decode to understand the actual story. Maybe the words don’t cover the actual story, but push it forward, like an arrow to its target.
Fox believes “all Shakespearean characters, whether they are rich or poor, male or female, kings or commoners, are wordsmiths. They love words. They get drunk on them.” But when reading Shakespeare’s words, many modern readers get lost. Sitting and reading the thees and thous to themselves, many people just don’t click with the plays, yet the vast majority of the words Shakespeare uses are still regularly used today. It is then no surprise that when we get up and start performing the words as they were intended, not sitting behind some desk in class, but fully living as the characters, Shakespeare’s work becomes the magic that has kept people’s imaginations captive for four hundred years. This is what makes places like the ASC so special, as every day they give people the chance to get up from behind their desks, to explore the characters, and to find links to those characters in themselves.
In Shakespeare’s plays, there are no safety nets. The characters are bold and live on the edge, even when that edge is precarious and they go toppling down. Maybe it is these characters, these wordsmiths, which have made Shakespeare transcend four hundred years. Everybody wants a chance to live life to the fullest, and Shakespeare lets people do just that. True, it may seem more challenging on the surface, as you try to comprehend rhetoric and iambic pentameter, but underneath there is a very human heart beating. If you can find your way to that heart, then hopefully you find your key to Shakespeare.
ASCTC Counselor, Session 1