Learning Shakespeare
Learning Shakespeare

Learning Shakespeare

I recently came across a story I wrote some time ago: it was in an anthology of  short stories intended for study by GCSE English students in the UK. It was a strange feeling to see it there, accompanied by questions about it and points for discussion. That a story, written for the pleasure and entertainment of its readers, asking only that they should make a personal emotional response to it, had been turned into the subject of an academic exercise seemed somehow ridiculous. I felt that it had demeaned the story, which had become a cold object, not the thing I had written.

“Learning” Shakespeare, poems, plays and works of fiction is a relatively new phenomenon.  We study those works now and our teachers award us marks for the things we have learnt about the works we study. We go further as well – we study Elizabethan and Jacobean dramas, written for performance only, as though they were works of literature. Shakespeare’s plays fall into the category of literature now, whereas there was probably nothing further from his mind as he turned them out for performance on a stage. He had a go at writing poems: there are the sonnets and a few epic poems, and he probably aspired to being a poet as writing poetry was one of the marks of a gentleman and that’s probably how he wanted to be regarded. But the cold reality is that Shakespeare was basically a hack and all his energy went into the urgent and exhausting job of making plays.

When he arrived in London he found himself in the middle of a blossoming theatre industry and he probably just fell into writing plays, as that’s where the money was – and it was big money, given London’s insatiable appetite for that particular form of entertainment.  He worked furiously at it, turning out several plays a year. He wasn’t able to supply the demand for the theatres with which he was associated singlehanded, and there were scores of writers, all crafting plays. Some of their work has lasted but there were many more who were never heard of again. Shakespeare was just one of them, grinding away in a play factory. Indeed, we would not even have heard of him if it hadn’t been for a couple of enterprising actors who redeemed his plays and collected them in the famous First Folio. And he wrote twice as many plays as those we know about. Unfortunately many of his products have been lost forever.

Although the public loved watching plays the men who were associated with the theatre were regarded as a low form of life. The Jacobean poet, John Donne, has given us some remarkable dramatic poems but he never tried writing a play. He was a poet and a gentleman and would never have dreamt of involving himself in such a disreputable activity. The same is true of Edmund Spencer and Sir Philip Sydney, both gentlemen. They were producing ‘literature:’ Shakespeare and his colleagues were making plays – which were all disposable after they had been performed. The big thing was to keep new plays coming: there were no revivals of plays that had been discarded and that’s one of the reasons that so much of the ‘golden age’ of English literature has been lost. The plays were something like the pop songs of today – performed, some of them becoming hits, and then disappearing, never to be heard again. Thrown away. Except that we record them with our modern technology so those who want to hear them at a later time can often have access to them.

But Shakespeare is now ‘literature.’ We ‘learn’ him and get marks for writing about his plays. They are on the English syllabus of the schools in almost every country in the world and in very many they are compulsory items. Every Chinese child has to ‘study’ Shakespeare. Just think about that! The plays are in all the universities and even available in distance learning schemes, where you have to read them alone and in silence. It’s highly improbable that Shakespeare ever imagined anyone reading one of his plays. Such an idea was unknown. The only Elizabethan who ever read a play was the stage manager, or prompt, whose job it was to stage the play. Even the actors saw only their own lines, cut out of one of the two copies that there were. One was cut up for the actors and the other was used by the prompt, the man who had to have an oversight of the text, and that was it.

With all the things Shakespeare imagined, all the insights he had, which still guide us in our lives today, something he would not have imagined was that he would become an enduring  giant of ‘literature,’ his disposable plays read and studied by millions of students each year.

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