Friday, January 28, 2011

Getting into Shakespeare: Part 3

Editors and English Professors are our Friends

Hey everyone, welcome back to the Getting Into Shakespeare Series! This week, it’s time for what we’ve all been waiting for - how do I actually READ Shakespeare? You might be thinking: I already know I can understand what’s going on if it’s acted out in front of me by professionals (as discussed in Part 1 and Part 2), but I want to read through Shakespeare in a year! Or, at least, read some Shakespeare, sometime. Maybe.

Well, you're in luck. Here’s the What Shall Shakespeare Say Today patented method for reading Shakespeare.

Step 1: Pick one of the Shakespeare movies I suggested in Part 1 of this series. Watch the movie at least once. This will not only help you understand the story, it will also help get the rhythm and grammatical style of Shakespearean English into your ear, and thence, into your brain. It's even better to watch it more than once, if you've got time (and if you love it, watch it as many times as you want! Let’s not talk about how many times Shakespeare girl and I have seen the movie of Twelfth Night...).

I concede that you can skip Step 1 if you want, and dive right into reading, but I find that method to be more difficult. An alternative to watching movies was suggested to me by my co-worker, Connor, who said to "get" Shakespeare, he downloads audio versions of Shakespeare plays from itunes and listens to them while he reads the plays. Apparently hearing it gives you some help in understanding the language, and allows you more leeway to imagine the scene than you would get from a movie. This might be a good thing to try and see if it works for you.

Step 2: Head to the library or the bookstore, and look for a book edition of the play you just watched (or downloaded from itunes).

Your friendly neighborhood library.

When you see all the Shakespeare editions on the shelves, examine them carefully before you take one home. The objective is to find a full-text version with some good footnotes and helpful explanations. These editions are usually edited by clever English professors who can help us a lot. I’ve had good success with both Yale and Norton versions of Shakespeare - they usually have a lot of word definitions and notes to explain obscure phrases or references. Shakespeare girl also recommends the Arden, Riverside, and Oxford editions.

These are the kinds of books that English professors themselves use when reading Shakespeare, so again, NO SHAME!!! The editors and professors have already put a lot of time into figuring out what the tricky words mean, so you don’t have to. Instead, you can concentrate on your new and dazzling insights.

Step 3: With your helpful edition in hand, and Shakespearean language in your ear, now try reading the play.

Don’t worry if you don’t move as fast as you normally do while reading the complete works of John Grisham or even Charles Dickens. Don’t even worry if you don’t understand everything. You will understand a lot. If you’ve done Step 1, and watched the movie, you will automatically know what’s going on much of the time (trust me, the lines make a lot more sense if you’ve got some context, and you’ve already heard Denzel Washington or Helena Bonham-Carter saying it!).

Of course, the written style of plays is pretty different from novels. But most of the differences are pretty self-apparent, so this is not something to fret over. The main thing to remember is that it's all written in dialogue with stage directions.

Here's an example of some dialogue:
Why then, the mustard without the beef.

Go, get thee gone, thou false deluding slave,

Beats him

That feed'st me with the
very name of meat:
Sorrow on thee and all the pack of you,
That triumph
thus upon my misery!
Go, get thee gone, I say.

Enter PETRUCHIO and HORTENSIO with meat

PETRUCHIO: How fares my Kate? What, sweeting, all amort?
A couple of things to note:

  • The character’s name is just before what he or she says (you can't see it here, but sometimes the character's name is abbreviated).
  • The stage directions are given in a very brief format, so you have to figure out who is doing the action based on the context - it doesn’t say “Katherine beats Grumio," it says “beats him.” The actual original Shakespeare texts contained very few stage directions (one of the only original ones is the famous "Exit pursued by a bear"), so these instructions can vary among editions.
  • Words like “Enter” and “Exit” are put in front of the name of whoever is doing the entering or exiting. They are rarely correctly conjugated. They're just indications of movement.
  • There are some tricky words. If you've followed Step 2, and are reading from a great edition, this should be okay. If you happened to read this page in the Norton edition, for example, the editor would have some definitions right on the page for you: "only the name" for "the very name," "sweetheart" for "sweeting," and "dejected" for "amort."
    As an aside: lately I’ve been struck by the fact that when you read plays, you often have to imagine *how* all of the scenes happen. Comments on the character’s emotions or manner are very brief, if they’re noted at all. If the scene above were written in prose, it would probably go something like this:
    Grumio slyly quipped, “Why then, the mustard without the beef.”
    Katherine fixed him with a cold stare. Her disheveled appearance belied her status as lady of the house, but she would not be thus thwarted forever. “Go, get thee gone, thou false deluding slave,” was all she could spit out at first. Then, having lost her temper - and dignity - completely, she began to beat the hapless servant, shouting at the top of her lungs “That feed'st me with the very name of meat: Sorrow on thee and all the pack of you, that triumph thus upon my misery! Go, get thee gone, I say.”

    At that very moment, Petruchio and Hortensio sauntered in placidly. There sat a large dish of delicious meat in Petruchio's hardened masculine hands, generally more apt to clench the sword than carry dainties. He viewed the scene with a concerned frown. His glance lingered on the lady he hoped would soon love him with her heart as well as hand. “How fares my Kate?” he inquired. “What, sweeting, all amort?”

    Luckily, there is just no room for all of those adjectives in drama - adding emotion and style is often the actor’s rather than the writer’s job. So you get to use your imagination!

    Ready? Have fun, and watch the movie again if necessary!

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