My first exposure to Shakespeare was in fifth grade when a touring ensemble- from an early Joseph Papp company, I believe- came to my elementary school and performed two scenes from The Merchant of Venice. I remember clearly the casket scene where the suitors gamble on choosing the correct box in order to win Portia’s hand. The company performed in authentic Elizabethan style with sets limited to fabrics draped strategically, few props, and rich jeweled costumes. Minutes into the performance, I was hooked, I was in awe…. I was in love.
Two hours after returning from the Westport Book Sale on Saturday, I was delighted to find that I had won a pair of tickets for that night on the virtual ticket line to The Public Theatre’s production of Measure for Measure in Central Park. A successful book hunt AND tickets for Shakespeare? Wow! A white-knuckled ride into the city, and the coveted tickets were mine!
There are only 1872 seats in the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, and most tickets are given away free the day of the performance. Unfortunately, there are usually several hundreds more people who wait in vain. Sharing “how I got my ticket” stories are great conversation starters while waiting for the show to begin. “I feel so guilty,” the man in front of me wailed, “I was the cut-off and the people behind me in line got nothing.” (Please note, he did not feel guilty enough to give them his tickets.)
On this warm summer evening, a diverse group of people of all ages, ethnicity, and economic status sat wholly engaged in the performance; reactions to the comedy or the complications of the play were genuine and spontaneous. All were caught up in the rhythm of the play’s ebb and flow, and the applause at the conclusion was thunderous. Again, I was hooked, I was in awe…. I was in love.
I doubt, however, if many in the audience had read the play beforehand, which brings me to a dilemma I face as an English teacher. Is Shakespeare meant to be seen or to be read? I would not teach Measure for Measure in high school, but I do teach Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and Hamlet. I am most successful when I employ audio tapes of actors reading the lines, showing film clips of performances, or choosing scenes for students to act out themselevs. I do not hand out the text and say “read this.”
The individual cost for Shakespeare texts is not terribly expensive. Mass market paperbacks of all Shakespeare plays are $5.99 at Amazon, and a whole class set will run about $600. We have several editions of each play because every year I toss more than a few overused copies into the trash. Now, there are technologies that are changing the classroom dynamic. I note that my students are choosing to use web sites such as Sparknotes and No-Fear Shakespeare to help them prepare for quizzes or tests. The site for E-notes provides an eText which contains embedded glossary and reader’s notes for the most popular plays. On E-notes, when a student sees a word or words underlined in red, a cursor reveals a word for the glossary or note entry. The use of iPads, iPods, and smart phones in the classroom is rapidly becoming a reality; students will be able to have the text delivered free to a device in an instant. But can these electronically enhanced texts enable students to enjoy Shakespeare? Are these devices really any different than paper texts? Not really.
Loving Shakespeare is all about the performance. I believe watching the staging, listening to the actors’ interpretation of the text, and discussing the director’s vision of any Shakespeare play is what creates the appreciation for the bard. Taking students to a live performance is the best way to recreate the original experience. Shakespeare’s audiences did not have to read the script to prepare for the play. Those lucky Elizabethans paid their pence and became caught up in the rhythm of a play’s ebb and flow. The way the crowd at The Delacorte Theatre did. The way I did in fifth grade.
So, with apologies to publishers, I will not be buying any more new Shakespeare texts. I will allow students to download the electronic texts for free, and I will patch up our collection with a few used books at sales for students who want a book in hand. I will, however, rely on a performance, live or on film, to make students appreciate Shakespeare’s work, hopefully the way that the crowd appreciated Measure for Measure on a warm summer evening in Central Park in New York City some 400 years after the bard penned the script for performance, not publication.