Posts Tagged ‘Shakespeare’s language’

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.

On Shakespeare’s birthday

April 23, 2019

I don’t recall meeting any of Shakespeare’s plays until I got to the fourth form and began my O Level Eng Lit course: we studied The Merchant of Venice, with an inspirational English teacher who wasn’t afraid back then to explain everything, including the bawdy bits. I was fascinated to finally be reading this writer whose fame and reputation I’d heard so much about, and I came to love the moral complexities in that play. I can still reel off vast sections which I must have learnt by heart as I revised. It wasn’t until years later that I actually got to see it onstage, and the most memorable performance was one at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in the 1990s, where Portia was played as a woman who was old enough to be worried about being left an old maid, and Bassanio was clearly also no longer in the prime of youth and an evident gold-digger… Sadly, I only had a couple of opportunities to teach the play in my entire career.

A Level brought two tragedies, King Lear and Othello. The former still moves me to tears when I read it and I look forward one day to seeing a decent performance onstage; the only one I’ve seen so far was truly abysmal and best forgotten. Othello I loved, too, and have taught more times than I care to remember; I’ve seen a number of memorable performances including a couple at Stratford with the RSC, though I still like Willard White paired with Ian McKellen best of all, a TV performance I’ve watched countless times with students. Iago’s cold, calculating and incomprehensible evil comes across so powerfully as he struts in his corporal’s uniform, and you have to be really quick in the closing moments to see the brief and sinister darkening of the moustache…

I was lucky enough, at school, to have been taken to see plays at what was then the revolutionary – in more ways than one – new Nottingham Playhouse, where I was fortunate to see one of Ian McKellen’s first, if not his first, performances as Hamlet. In the end, however, that was a play that I never really warmed to, just as I always found Macbeth somehow unsatisfactory, although if you look up my post on the performance I saw at Stratford last year, you will see that I finally got to see a performance that transformed my appreciation of that play.

Although I enjoyed teaching Shakespeare enormously, it was always against the backdrop of examinations, especially with younger students whose enjoyment I feel was sometimes marred by the need to ‘get it right’ for an examiner. I particularly hated having to teach plays for the SATs at age 14 (now long gone, thank God) and felt constrained when Romeo and Juliet was up for testing as it was rather a challenge explaining all the obscenities to students that young… it’s a play much more suited to GCSE. But grinding thorough Julius Caesar or Macbeth with a 75-minute examination in view also felt like a bit of a chore, and at times I wondered how much of a love for the bard the students would end up with.

Obviously when students have chosen to study Eng Lit in the sixth form, it’s all rather different: there’s more time to do justice to a play, and students are more thoughtful and mature in their approach, and we could enjoy the language and the jokes, the wit and the vulgarity to the full. We could explore alternative possibilities and interpretations and this was positively encouraged by the syllabus at times. This is where I came to love two plays above all: Othello, and Antony and Cleopatra; ask me one day which is my ‘favourite’ Shakespeare play and it will be one of these two, depending on whether there is an ‘r’ in the month or which way the wind is blowing. Why? Othello for the evil of Iago, the innocence of Othello and the shock when everything that was perfect is turned to dust for him, and the feistiness of Desdemona, until she cannot understand what is happening to her and her husband any more… Antony and Cleopatra for the passion of age that is not youth, and the giving up of worlds for that passion… Both plays for the sublimity of the language.

Sometimes I engage briefly with the scholarly arguments about who wrote the plays; most of the time I do not care. Someone – William Shakespeare, most probably – wove and knitted words so magically some four centuries ago that they can take us to places, take us inside people, show us feelings that can take us far beyond ourselves, can entertain us, make us think, move us to tears. It’s all invention, and it’s all wonderful.

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