Shakespeare — Introduction
Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
Virtually everyone has heard of him. We even quote Shakespeare without knowing it.
Now then, as is the case for most of us, the less said about high school Shakespeare the better. And I’m the first one to admit that I avoided Shakespeare in college as much as possible, figuring that with all those wannabe theatre types among the English majors (after whom I had to clean up, in my crappy college jobs) digging him, that Shakespeare was no doubt overrated and had too much to do with old dead kings and woodland fairies and men in tights. There may be some benefits of coming to Shakespeare later on in life, but nevertheless, I was o so wrong.
Paradoxically, as a recent book insists (albeit by a pompous ass), Shakespeare invented us — that is, in his creation of characters, he originated our entire sense of what a human being is and how a human being operates. He invented psychology. More important than understanding “yourself” or even understanding the relationships between you and others, it is absolutely vital to understand what is happening in the complex dynamics between you and “life.” I have found only mythology and Shakespeare to be of significant help in this crucial matter, and I’ve done a lot of looking.
In addition to these lofty matters, learning Shakespeare involves you in mastering a subtler level of literacy, for lack of a better word, than you may have even thought existed — and I don’t mean just vocabulary. I mean intricacy and cleverness, which is quite exhilarating.
If you’re just getting started with the Bard, I recommend a read-through of this introductory page written by former Shakespeare students: Strumpets on Shakespeare.
Language and Style:
Avoid the loose use of the term “Old English” (as in Aunt Marion’s insistence that “Michael is out there in Idaho teaching all that Old English stuff,” by which she seems to mean everything from The Great Gatsby backwards). Old English (Hwæt, we Gardena in geardagum / þeodcyninga þrym gefrunon…) is the language used for Beowulf; it is heavily Germanic and not recognizable. Neither does Shakespeare write in Middle English, the language of Chaucer, which shows heavy French influence and requires hefty annotation. Admittedly, Shakespeare does not sound modern. His language has therefore been termed “Early New English” or “Early Modern English.” It may take you a while to get the swing of this, or back into the swing of this, but once you do you’ll start thinking in this mode and have to resist the urge to speak this way in public.
The plays include both metrical and prose passages. Shakespeare uses iambic pentameter (= blank verse when not rhyming) — not to seem “poetic” and unnatural, but for the formality of a “high style” without departing from what is a somewhat intrinsic natural rhythm of English. And ask an actor which is easier to commit to memory.
Originally, was the style of acting artificially formalistic, or was it what we would consider naturalistic? We get minimal stage directions, and even punctuation tends to be light. So there is a lot of room for interpretation in the plays.
Yes, on the public stage, women’s roles were played by boys, so there is a predilection for extra levels of irony in the comedies in which women are disguised as men, matters liable to be missed in contemporary productions casting women in women’s roles.
It might be said that the plays have no stable identity: they can mean only through performance. They must be seen to be experienced properly, and reading them is a secondary kind of approach. Therefore we’re ruining the plays to read and analyze them; we should be watching films all semester.
This is not entirely valid. Long plays such as Hamlet could not physically have been performed on the Elizabethan stage in their entirety. (Even Branagh requires two videotapes.) So in some sense Shakespeare must have intended the things to have a textual existence too. Nevertheless, this is dramatic literature. Shakespeare is one class, therefore, in which there is no shame in seeing lots of film. But a lot of discussion about what we’re seeing is also crucial.
If Shakespeare had interest in publishing the texts of his plays, evidence seems lost. Only about half of the plays were printed in his lifetime, none with the author’s dedication or those preliminary adornment documents so typical of Elizabethan works. Nor would it have been in the best interest of the theatrical companies to have them published anyway.
A collection of 36 plays was published in 1623, called now the First Folio (signifying that the page was folded once in the binding process). Of these, 18 had been published earlier as quarto editions (in which the page is folded twice), and 18 were published here for the first time. Pericles and Two Noble Kinsmen were added to the canon from elsewhere. It looks as though the author would make a working draft (called “foul papers”), and then he or a scribe would make a “fair copy.” In some cases, we seem to have texts of plays reconstituted by memory from actors. In other words, the manuscript situation is a bit messy, but probably not as bad as the Chaucer manuscript tradition or Beatles bootleg discographies.
I think there is ample evidence that Shakespeare was a perpetual reviser of his works, probably for new productions. Thus, frequent anomalies arise — be on the alert for these.
Shakespeare mastered and advanced the forms of dramatic literature: Comedies, Histories (Roman and English), Tragedies, Romances (sometimes lumped in with the Comedies), and perhaps another separate genre known as “Problem Plays.”
Enough. Let’s read.