Simon Palfrey: Doing Shakespeare

January 17, 2021

     Here’s a book which I acquired shortly before I retired from teaching and finally got around to reading. But I couldn’t really deduce the who the target audience was meant to be. Not school students, perhaps undergraduates, maybe English teachers quite early on in their career? I tried really hard to engage with it, but found myself frequently skimming rather than reading intently, as I gained the impression that here was someone trying hard to teach his grandmother to suck eggs. And I recognise that to find it over-thought and over-explained was more than a tad unfair…

Palfrey writes from the perspective of a reader of Shakespeare, rather than a watcher of the plays, and tries to make the case for that approach: I can accept that far more people may read him rather than enjoy the plays in the theatre, but we live in an age where recorded performances of many kinds are now readily available. From his premise flows the argument that the reader can, and does, focus more closely on Shakespeare’s use of language, and an insistence on the reader focusing in more depth on how the playwright uses words; I can’t argue with this last point. But writing a general work on how to read Shakespeare more closely does not seem to work very well, and I frequently had the impression of a man trying to nail jelly to a wall.

As the book progresses, the clarity of the author’s focus on the details of how Shakespeare uses language so effectively does develop usefully, supporting the obvious point that in the pace, flow and audience involvement in a performance of a play so much will inevitably be missed. And there is the important idea that a Shakespearean audience would have listened differently from ourselves nowadays, and have tuned in to a great deal more of the vast range of wordplay and wit; it’s useful to be reminded of this and have it exemplified. But four pages to unpick the ranges of meaning in one line from Macbeth is over the top, I feel.

Palfrey is constantly shifting between what I found to be revelatory insights, and the blindingly obvious; in the end, what he’s on about is the multiplicities of meaning available in Shakespeare’s plays, which I knew already. And so I come back to my original two points: who is the book for, and my unfairness in this piece.

I earned my bread and butter teaching Shakespeare in schools for the best part of 30 years, and found that it was possible to awaken students to the variety of Shakespeare’s language and its intensity, and some of the levels and shades of meaning, but that this was always in the context of studying the totality of a single play, reading it several times, and watching it in the theatre or failing that, in a recorded performance. It was a strange exercise, rather like removing the layers of an onion, in the sense that the better they knew and understood a play, the more the students would be tuning into its language along with so many other facets.

Perhaps it’s the attempt to show all of this, using so many of the plays, in one book, that I found most frustrating.

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