26 October 2020

Stratford Redux

 by Steve Liskow

Several weeks ago, I got an idea for a short story that needed a little refresher on Shakespeare. During my theater days, I directed six of his plays, acted in nine, and assigned about a dozen more. When I donated most of my acting books to the theater several years ago, I found the Arden, Oxford, Pelican, Penguin, Bantam and Signet editions of plays I directed on my shelves, along with four hard-cover complete collections. I kept those. 

Reading outside your genre makes you see things differently, and revisiting Shakespeare was the writing equivalent of a six-pack of Red Bull. Remember, the majority of his audience--who paid well and often to see his productions--was illiterate. They came for a good story and they got it. He knew his audience and gave them what they wanted. He owned a shared in the theater and retired at age 46, returning to Stratford and buying the second-largest house in town. 

Since looking up what I needed, I've reread The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Love's Labour's Lost and Romeo and Juliet. Even 2 Gents (Possibly his first produced work) shows us how to tell a story. Only in his late 20s, Will gives us plot and character arcs that are clear and strong. OK, the ending is a little hard to buy, but the structure and dialogue rock.

By the time I'd read the first act of 2 Gents, I understood the language again. Shakespeare wrote in modern English, and his punctuation is surprisingly contemporary. If you don't understand a line, stand up, read it out loud, and let the rhythms show you when and where to move. Trust me, it works. 

In Romeo and Juliet, look how Shakespeare differentiates Paris, Tybalt, Romeo, Benvolio and Mercutio, all teen-aged boys, by their speech patterns. Notice how everything in the plot is logical and leads to that wrenching finish.

Learn from the constant vivid images that deepen the characters and carry the themes. Shakespeare wrote that play when he was about 30, so his "great" works are still to come.

In the middle of my career, I took an intensive (One-day) workshop on performing the plays from the First Folio text. It was so helpful that I bought a copy of the First Folio, and I kept that, too.

The introduction makes an important distinction. "[This] is not a collection of plays, but a collection of scripts." Shakespeare wrote his plays to be performed, not to be read (remember, most of his audience couldn't read), and the difference matters. His actors often had only their own lines along with the cues (Today, we'd call these "sides"), but they could interpret the writer's verse, prose and rhythms for acting hints. If all English teachers took the workshop I did, students would come out of their classes loving Shakespeare instead of hating or fearing him. A theater group my wife still works with calls this phenomenon "Shakes-fear."

Alas, English teachers need no involvement with theater to get their degree. Most of them have none, and they teach Shakespeare as literature. It makes as much sense as a blind man teaching photography. 

Just as an aside, most editions of Romeo and Juliet put Mercutio's "Queen Mab" monologue in blank verse. The First Folio prints it in prose, and it flows better and is easier to follow. Actors could learn it more easily. 

Will can teach crime writers how to do it better, too.

You want noir? See how Lady Macbeth drives a good guy over the edge, 350 years before James M. Cain penned The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Verbal comedy?
The Comedy of Errors has Antipholus and Dromio discussing the Kitchen Wench with puns and repartee that Abbot and Costello might have cribbed for their "Who's on First?" gem. Foreshadowing? How about "Beware the Ides of March?"

I won't reread all the plays, but I will revisit several others. I've been away a long time.


  1. Steve, I've been reading Shakespeare aloud once a month with friends for years now - we've recently moved from in-person to Zoom for obvious reasons, and it's still fantastic. The rhythms and language... Sigh...
    BTW, a great book that I recommend to everyone is Germaine Greer's "Shakespeare's Wife" (2007). Brilliant book with what I would call a peasant's eye view of Shakespeare. (Her PhD thesis was "The ethic of love and marriage in Shakespeare's early comedies" and she's an excellent scholar.)

  2. I haven't read Shakespeare for a while, but I've seen a lot of his plays produced by Denver's excellent regional theatre company. Takes me 15 minutes to acclimate to the language, but from then on it's wonderful. Have you ever seen the play The Book of Will, which about how the First Folio came into being? A wonderful play.

  3. Bruce, I agree on the language. If the audience doesn't understand it, blame the director and performers, not the playwright. I don't know The Book of Will. I'll have to look it up. Thanks for the tip.

  4. When the DiCaprio version of R&J hit theatres, I was dubious about combining original language with pseudo-futuristic vehicles and weapons, but 20 minutes into it, I'd forgotten my concerns. I was sold.

    My friend Deborah taught English lit, including Shakespeare, in tough inner city schools, culminating in her class producing a play. I'm not sure how much is her magic and how much is Shakespeare's, but it works!

  5. Leigh, I remember seeing the DiCaprio & Danes version in a theater, where have two distinct memories. The first is that lots of Juliet's and Romeo's lines were cut because the actors had too much method training to handle the language well (unlike Paul Scorvino and the man playing Mercutio as a drag queen, both of whom were brilliant).

    The second memory is the way the scene in Juliet's tomb was staged, with Juliet gradually regaining consciousness as Romeo prepares to drink the poison. I loved that, and it became even better when a few teeanagers three rows in front of my wife and me were calling out to Romeo, "Look, look, she's waking up! Don't drink it!" These kids hadn't read the play yet, and the story had them completely hooked. They were participating in Shakespeare, and that proves once again the power of good story-telling. Everything else in the production, like it or not, paled next to the fact that the kids were RIGHT THERE AND COMPLETELY COMMITTED TO IT. I loved it.

  6. Steve, that reminds me of listening to some kids at Shakespeare's Globe in London having a brave new world moment about this cool thing of watching real live people act out a powerful story which (unlike movies or TV) is never the same twice.

    As writers you & I both combine passion for theater, music (particularly rock-&-roll), & Holmes-Watson collaborations, which all draw on multiple media at once: motion, rhythm, strong crescendo structure, aural & visual beauty, & the creative delight of the participants. Even in a pandemic, what a satisfactory realm! Thanks for the reminder.

  7. Great tip on reading Shakespeare aloud. The work was meant to be spoken, and it shows by how well it pops with a live performance. And yes, if you take Romeo & Juliet apart, you absolutely see incredible character married to theme, etc.

    The guy understood how to tell a story. The only times he didn't go to a next logical scene were those clear interludes setting up a next scene.


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>