Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

May 10, 2013

Shakespeare for the Terrified 101

…or Get Thee to Hartford Stage, Suffield Players, Hampshire Shakespeare, Barrington Stage, and Shakespeare & Company, forthwith!

By Shera Cohen

I would like to take credit for the title of this article, but alas, I cannot. It is the name of one of the courses offered at the Globe Theatre in London. In an interview with the Globe’s Vice President of Education, we discussed many of the opportunities offered to youth to study and perform Shakespeare’s plays. What about the huge number of adults who say phrases like, “I don’t understand Shakespeare,” “The language is confusing,” and the often heard lament “I hated it in high school”?

The answer to satisfy the fears of these theatre goers was the Globe’s course, “Shakespeare for the Terrified.” Such a class should be given across the pond to help, in a non-didactic and fun way for adults who don’t want to miss out on these classics; i.e. “Hamlet,” “Macbeth,” “Much Ado About Nothing,” and far more from this prolific writer considered the best playwright in history.

The best way to be ride of Shakespeare anxiety is by watching the comedies. They are far more understandable. Realize that you will not “get” every word; just get the essence. Trust me; unless you have a PhD in Literature, no one understands line for line. You can easily figure it out. The comedies’ plots are essentially the same, with common elements: disguises, twins, wooing, mistaken identities, physical action, spritely tunes, a happy ending (usually a wedding), and laughs. Laughter is the universal language. Don’t be terrified to laugh.

Playgoers of the early 17th century never fully understood these plays, particularly because The Bard coined many words – approximately 1700. The groundlings heard words for the first time at the Globe; i.e. madcap, skim milk, eyeball, zany, gloomy, unreal, advertising, blanket, elbow, gossip, bedroom, luggage, and cold-blooded. It’s hard to think that none of these were in our lexicon until Shakespeare penned them.

Have you been coaxed or even forced to attend a production of a Shakespeare comedy, drama, or history play? There’s nothing the matter with reading an online synopsis prior to going. Sparknotes No Fear Shakespeare’s write nearly word for word translation. Important to know is that plays are not meant to be read, but to be seen on a stage. Do the play justice – see it. Maybe you saw one of the many “Romeo and Juliet” movie versions, or four-hour “Hamlet,” or Emma Thompson/Kenneth Branaugh’s “Much Ado About Nothing”? That’s a good start. But, they were not as Shakespeare planned; his plays are onstage productions. See the “originals” as much as you can.

That said, what about troupes that update these classics? Setting the 1500s in the 21st century, background hip-hop music, “Star Trek” costumes, and major editing? I have seen all, and more. I had thought that I was a purist – the play MUST be kept as written and as close to how it must have looked five centuries ago. Then, I experienced a modern look at “The Winter’s Tale.” What do you know, I thoroughly enjoyed it. For the novice, the familiar settings and accoutrements might make the language and action easier to comprehend.

Start local (you don’t have to travel to London) with a comedy. are no longer terrified. In fact, you might want to attend a second comedy or even a drama.

The following are recommended Shakespeare comedy productions on stages in our area now or this summer:
  • “As You Like It,” Suffield Players (through 5/18/13)
  • “Twelfth Night,” Hartford Stage (starts 5/19/13)
  • “Much Ado About Nothing,” Hampshire Shakespeare
  • “Much Ado About Nothing,” Barrington Stage
  • “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Shakespeare & Company