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Caution: Use as Directed!

Me, a lover of Shakespeare, at the site of the original Globe Theater
Me, a lover of Shakespeare, at the site of the original Globe Theater

I was just 10 years old when I attended my first Shakespeare play, The Taming of the Shrew. My guess is that buying a ticket for me was cheaper than hiring a sitter. There I was, though, up in the first row of the balcony of Minneapolis’s Guthrie Theater with one of my big brothers, watching Shakespeare.

I didn’t understand a single word of the first scene. I was not some sort of geeky, born-to-love-Shakespeare genius. I was truly wondering if staying awake was going to be worth it.

And then—something clicked in my brain. The language, the gestures, the plot, even the humor made sense. Katherina, Petruchio, Gremio, Bianca all came alive. It just took awhile for me to catch on.

My point? Shakespeare wrote his plays to be watched, not read.

When they’re well acted (huzzah for Kenneth Branagh and St. Crispin’s), students can enjoy them as intended. On paper, the words are foreign, stilted. Spoken, they can work their magic. Listen to a couple of examples of how Shakespeare sounded in the original to see what I mean!

I saw the same magic happen to  high schoolers sitting in front of me at the Guthrie for As You Like It. I knew two of them from a research project I’d done at their school. “Yeah, Dr. Kise,” they said, “can you believe we’re going to have to sit through this whole dumb play?” Act I, they slouched in their seats. Act II, they sat up rather straight. At the intermission, they turned to me and said, “I can’t believe our teachers are letting us watch this—isn’t it like R-rated?” Act IV, they bowled over with laughter.

Yet how often do we make students read the plays before seeing even a movie clip? Assuming that they can’t understand it? Oh, let them learn Lear through Ian McKellen!

And while I’m on the subject, what about novels? If you’d lived 150 years ago, no one would have asked you to read the hot new book Bleak House by that Dickens fellow in just a few weeks. No, you’d have had to spread your reading out over 20 months, waiting for each installment.

Try downloading Bleak House and reading just a chapter a week (for me, the classics are easier on my e-readers, perhaps because the small text windows slow down my brain!). What happens to your speed, the images the descriptions conjure in your mind, your understanding of the dialogue nuances? It’s a different experience than when I read all 700 pages in a week for a college class.

Even better, the chance to sit in Dicken's favorite seat at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese!
Even better, the chance to sit in Dicken’s favorite seat at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese!

That’s why I started a group at called Dickens as Writ. So far, members have chosen Bleak House, A Tale of Two Cities, or Nicholas Nickleby. Just a chapter a week. Chewing on the words and the messages and the art of his writing. Join us and post about your experience with these books or another of your own choosing.

And ponder where else we’ve taken something meant to be savored one way and turned it into torture by delivering it in a manner that sucks the life out of it.

What else might we be better off using as directed?

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Jane Kise is a consultant and executive coach. The founder of Differentiated Coaching Associates and author of over 20 books, she works with schools and businesses worldwide to help create environments where everyone can flourish.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Hi Jane,

    You’ve touched a nerve with me. My first experience of Shakespeare, via school (in the 13th century), was a black and white film of King Lear. All I remember of it now was that it was long and tedious, and there was lots of rain. I guess it was the Orson Welles version, which the intelligentsia might say is a reasonable version, but it put me off Shakespeare for many years. However, I was ‘redeemed’ when I saw a live version of 12th Night at the RSC in Stratford, and later a brilliant version of King Lear in the Anthony Hopkins theatre at Theatre Clwyd in Mold, Wales.

    What I’m saying is that the version you watch has to bring Shakespeare alive – and there are some versions that don’t. For the last quarter of a century we (my wife and I) have been to the Hillbark Players – a biennial outdoor production of Shakespearian plays, drawing on the best of the local amateur thespians. They really succeed in engaging the audience. For my 50th birthday party, I even hired the main stand! I also like “Shakespeare: The Animated Tales” – geared to my intellectual level! – which contains 12 of the major plays condensed to 30 minutes.


    1. Hi Steve–

      I so agree, but the blog would have gotten too long if I’d your brilliant words on quality performances, so thanks for posting!! Yes, I’d say we should be choosing the plays to study based on whether there are quality films or local productions available. Let students preview and be the judges somehow.

      I saw a production of Lear so bad it had us laughing. I couldn’t fathom why Lear would have given all control to his daughters. Then years later we caught the production with Ian McKellen when he was touring in the US. Amazing. It all made sense. If madness can make sense, that is, of course!

      I’d rather teach Henry V with Branagh’s performance than risk having students see anything that might not catch their attention or the spirit of the Bard!

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