We all know the stock answer. Drama is written to be performed, so Shakespeare is best studied through live performances. Very true. Just think about it in modern terms. Who reads screenplays for fun? (Where would you find a screenplay for that matter?)
But the reasons to see Shakespeare live go beyond playwright’s original intent. Seeing Shakespeare in person will open up a whole level of understanding, appreciation, and even delight that mere reading can never achieve.
Costumes & Scenery
Maybe this is an expressly feminine concern, but I adore the costumes of live drama. Clothing is a part of culture and history, so being exposed to the theatrical costumes offers another layer of subconscious learning.
When you read a play, you don’t know what the characters look like for the most part. But in live drama, the different roles are made clearer through the use of elaborate costuming.You can tell immediately who is female or male, who is rich or poor, who is young or old.
As the characters move about among the props and scenery, the plot is made clear in ways that reading never illustrate.
Putting it Together
The Elizabethan language of Shakespeare is far more accessible when offered in the context of gestures, intonation, and props. You may not exactly know what a basket-hilt stale juggler is, but when you see the words delivered onstage with animated eyes and voice, you know immediately that it is a hilarious insult.
When I took my daughter to her first live Shakespeare play in 2012–Romeo and Juliet– I was amazed that she comprehended everything. She had no problem following the action or dialogue. Granted, she was familiar with the story through the frequent reading of children’s versions, picture books, and even animated videos. But those retellings leave out much of the original language and humor.
The whole experience of costumes, scenery, gestures, props, animated intonation, and an audience full of delighted spectators created the perfect setting for a young learner to effortlessly absorb Shakespeare.
Yes, paying $50 for tickets to the theater is a far cry from downloading a free public domain copy of The Tempest. But the experience is incomparable. Let’s admit it, Elizabethan English is challenging to understand. If I had offered Emma a copy of The Tempest on her Kindle, she would have balked at reading through it all. But paying that high price for theater tickets means we can enjoy Shakespeare almost through osmosis rather than through labored reading.
And the bonus? A couple of delightful hours spent in the theater count for homeschool language arts for the day.
I am looking forward to the hot summer’s being over so that we can see outdoor drama again at The Tennessee Shakespeare Company.
When was the last time you saw a performance live? And when will the next one be? Is it an expense you are willing to sacrifice for?
Sylvia Duggan says
We have been going to our local park for the last 4 summers to see whichever Shakespeare play they put on there for 4 days in late July. This year we got rained out half way through the Merry Wives of Windsor. I totally agree with your post, when I was in school (back in the 70’s) in Minnesota the Guthrie Theater did a Shakespeare play every year as part of thier season. the jr. and sr. high studenets at my school all read whichever play they were doing and then attended the performance. It was great!
We have attended local Shakespeare in the Park for many years, as well. My younger two children have been in the Youth Shakespeare in the Park for the past two years and performed a youth version of Merry Wives last summer as the opening to the “adult” performance. (This year it’s The Tempest.)
Seeing the performances does make it come alive, and performing it for themselves has made my son & daughter into Shakespeare aficionados — they memorize lines just for fun, they rewrite plays (for ex. my 14 yo dd is making Hamlet into a musical comedy), and they incorporate Shakespearean themes into everyday life. This year they have two park performances, one library performance, and one filmed performance.
I understand some find Shakespeare a bit scary or boring, but Shakespeare in only scary or boring before you get into it. Once you read a few of the Lamb’s summaries (or Garfield) and then watch several DVD versions, you will begin to “own” the story and relate to it, and then it stops being scary. Starting with some of the more entertaining ones helps, too, such as Midsummer Night’s Dream, Taming of the Shrew, Twelfth Night, for ex.
My hubby is a Shakespeare geek, so I guess I should really be working to take him to a performance for an anniversary or something. The only time I’ve ever seen anything live is when he does his (very, very good) off-the-cuff performances himself. He’s got Hamlet down cold (every part, every scene, I’m pretty sure), and it is so much fun to watch. He missed his calling. Which is good, because I don’t want to be married to an actor.
‘Scuse me, that’s MacBeth that he’s so awesome at. Hamlet, he does some, but not quite so much. 🙂
We’ve been so fortunate to be able to go to a free Shakespeare festival each year in the late spring in a nearby town. (We missed it this year, I wasn’t paying attention!)
Interesting article in that all the reasons you list to see Shakespeare performed live are the reasons many list to NEVER see the movie before reading the book. We have not viewed Shakespeare live, although we watched several movies after reading his plays that were based upon Shakespeare’s works (“She’s the Man,” based upon Twelth Night, had the most Shakespearean symbolism). As for the reading, we use the No Fear Shakespeare series such that we can read the plays in modern English, but still refer back to the Old English to capture famous quotes, have a good laugh, etc. Thanks for sharing.
The first time I went to a Shakespeare play was in 8th grade with my journalism class. It was at the Old Globe Theater in (Balboa Park) San Diego.
The play wasn’t my favorite, but it was an experience I’m glad I had. I loved that the actors were in the audience. It really made us feel included in the story.
When I had children, we went to a few Shakespeare plays, also in Balboa Park, but not at the Globe. I think they enjoyed the experience as well.
My first Shakespeare was at the Old Globe in Balboa Park, San Diego, too. It was Two Gentlemen of Verona with my tenth grade English class. Loved the experience!
My real appreciation of seeing a Shakespeare drama was when I studied for my final BA degree exams and had too many setworks to read in full in time for my exams. I simply sat in the university library for 2 days watching all the Shakespeare plays and knew those dramas! I could ‘see’ moods and themes, clearly recognise characters and plot. It was a first class “cheat”!
My children love the setting, clothing, and characters of the 1960’s version of Romeo & Juliet and have recently enjoyed the Much Ado About Nothing DVD I bought them.
We have seen “Much Ado About Nothing” and it is SO much better to see than to read. I have friends who always go to plays performed by Tennessee Shakespeare Company! They love it.
The first time I saw Shakespeare live was in college. There wasn’t much live theater in the small town where I grew up, so I’m looking forward to exposing my kids to a lot of it here in Atlanta. I’ve already noticed on our local homeschool group field trip schedule there are TWO Shakespeare field trips!
Yes, I will spend the money once in a while for a LIVE performance. I feel the same way about the symphony! 😉
Tiger's Mum says
Absolutely! Shakespearean plays were written to be watched, rather than read, so the experience of learning constrasts great depending on whether the student has actually seen the play performed live. Since we live in England, there is no excuse for us not to watch it live, especially at The Globe!
Dawn @ The Momma Knows says
I thoroughly ENJOY Shakespearean plays! In high school we studied The Tempest, and were able to go see it live for extra credit for our English class. It was funny, SO GOOD, I’m glad I got to go and hope my kids will too. There are several plays I enjoy and hopefully my boys will too, when the time comes.