The Reading Room
Why Shakespeare Should Be Watched
Reading Shakespeare is hard. The syntax is unusual and archaic. The vocabulary is vast and unfamiliar. The characters and plots are complicated and muddy. All in all, Shakespeare is difficult to understand, much less enjoy. However, the bard is too important, his stories too significant to abandon. So, instead of struggling over difficult soliloquies all on your own or avoiding the works all together, go watch Shakespeare.
Many people struggle with how Shakespeare’s characters speak. However, hearing his Elizabetham English out loud with proper pauses, emphasis, and pronunciation clarifies much. It makes the words intelligible, and, after a little practice and repetition, his unusual syntax becomes understandable. Additionally, the emotional inflection of a dramatized telling brings the words to life. On the page, the words can be hard to follow, and even seem empty,, but on the stage their heart is clear. Phrases leap to life with fear, mockery, regret, admiration, and longing. Scripted dialogue becomes normal human conversation with response, feeling, and intention. At once, you understand the crushing guilt of Macbeth, the pithy banter of Beatrice and Benedick, and the grieving heart of Hamlet because that is how their words are presented. Does dramatic audio clarify everything Shakespeare said? Will every new word and funky bit of syntax make sense through hearing it once? No. But it does remove much of the mystery.
Seeing Shakespeare played out also removes much mystery. Many times, details and staging are left out of the script or minutely implied, creating a lag in understanding and jilted, unnatural lines. You only realize Macbeth’s hands are covered in blood in the middle of his soliloquy. You only understand the fool has been given two coins after he asks for a third. You only comprehend Laertes’s poisoned death when you see the swords switched. Such a lag may seem minor. However, it is these small details that gives the script fluency. Seeing them allows the lines to flow as natural responses to the circumstances. The sequence plays out like a movie, instead of a jilted, catch-up, piecing together of the situation. In short, visual details provide context for the words.
Visual details also enhance the play through body language and facial expression. Watching the boy’s face crinkle in pain, the knife drawn from his back, and his little body fall to the ground deepens the anguish expressed in the painful cry and weak plea of Macduff’s dying child. Seeing the bumbling steps, staggering frame, and bottle-grasping hand of Sir Toby extends his drunkenness past sloppy phrases. Hamlet hugging Horatio, Macduff’s grief-stricken face, and Don Pedro’s malicious grin – all these visual cues intensify the inflection and intention of the words. They build upon verbal expression. Furthermore, visual details add expression. Viola’s stand-offish stance at Olivia’s profession of love, Silvius’s constant puppy-dog eyes at Phoebe, Hamlet’s furrowed brow at his mother’s new husband– these are the visual cues that add meaning to the silence, to the unheard parts. They are not scripted. Rather, they are created by the actors to subtly deepen the heart of their character. These silent expressions are lost in merely reading the play.
Watching various renditions of the same Shakespeare play can also increase comprehension. Unlike movies or books, which are rarely remade, plays are performed over and over. This produces numerous recordings, films, and abridgments of the same play, each one different and distinct. Something that is unclear in one version might be more understandable in another. One production might be better acted, creating a more fluent presentation of the plot. Another company might perform in a modern time-period that makes the setting more understandable. Experiencing all these different aspects from various performances make the play more comprehensible. Simply put, the more versions you watch, the more sense the play will make.
Shakespeare’s plays were written to be seen. Their scripts are the bare bones of the story, sometimes dry and often difficult to understand. They become comprehensible through the actors’ voices and actions. They are given life through the stage. The confusing pages of lines melt into relatable characters with human feelings, fears, and faiths. They grow meaning, depth, and significance. They become an experience. In an age with easy access to recordings, videos, and streaming, embracing this experience has never been easier. All it takes is a search engine and willing mind.