Demystifying Shakespeare


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Before I go any further, let me make this declaration.  I am not an expert on Shakespeare.  I am more familiar with Shakespeare’s life and the times he lived in than I am with his work, even if I have read many of his plays and performed some of them on Stage. However, I have had to battle prejudices (as if I haven’t had to deal with the racial kind,) concerning the fact that just because I come from a certain social class (i.e. Working Class,) I am incapable of understanding Shakespeare and similarly other high-class works and concepts from The Arts.  And I like many others of the same social class and background believed these pieces of intellectual claptrap until my eyes were opened after my first acting lesson and began my battle (not war,) to correct what is a snobbish and continued attempt to keep the British Class System rigidly in place.

I was prompted to publish this piece due to a Facebook contact I received from someone who someone else had recommended me as someone to talk to about my approach in overcoming many of the clouds and mists that surrounds Shakespeare and prevents many from embracing the Works of The Bard and actually enjoying them.  I will republish the initial contact letter as well as my response which I hope will begin to the process of demystifying Shakespeare not just for my new friend Steve but anyone who wants to embrace Shakespeare but have been put off by the language and the above reasons that prevent them from doing so.

The Contact Email

Hi Daniel,

Shakespeare Workshops suggested I speak to you as I understand that you attended their workshop and probably was in the same position as me. I have been acting fir the last 4 years. Never attended Drama School (not at my age), but have trained through Metfilm school and continuous at The Actors Centre. I have serial mental block as far as Shakespeare is concerned and as soon as I start reading it, I get annoyed at it’s complexity and the old mist starts to fall. I feel I am missing out and need the right kick start. The Shakespeare workshop appears to be the sort of thing that might help me. A few months ago, I did a Demystifying Shakespeare workshop at The Actors Centre tutored by Timothy West. I thought this might help but half the class had experience with RSC and it was at a level way above my head, though I was impressed with seeing how Shakespeare can look when done well. I don’t know if you can relate to this, but how did you find the Shakespeare workshop?

My Response

Hi Steve,

Many thanks for getting in touch.  A little about me.  I did my formal training very much like yourself, in that I studied with The Actor’s Theatre School in North London on a part-time basis, while working during the day and supporting a family at that time.  I did that for a couple of years and in terms of qualifications, did examinations at LAMDA levels 7, 8 and Bronze Medal, all of which I achieved.  After that again like yourself, I did various courses, workshops, as well as working as an actor. I have never really stopped training wherever possible.  Good actors never stop training.

I have to admit, that if I had attended a Shakespeare Workshop tutored by Timothy West (bless him,) I would have been left completely stumped as you were.  Not by Mr. West’s tutelege but by other factors, I will come to later.  Interestingly the Comedian and Actor Lenny Henry did a TV programme about how he got around the mist surrounding Shakespeare.  As both he and I come from a black, working-class background in the Midlands, he articulated my problems regarding Shakespeare so perfectly.  It made no difference that he had a successful career for nearly forty years, he still had the same problems regarding Shakespeare that many ordinary working class people have.

A first step to getting rid of the block on Shakespeare is to have a knowledge of the times he was writing in and more importantly for whom he was writing.  If Shakespeare had lived today, he would have been writing for the common/working class person.  He was writing and performing his plays to make money.  The aristocracy wasn’t paying to watch but the likes of you and I would have.  When you get this little revelation into your head, the demystifiying of Shakespeare then begins.

In the modern context (and dare I say this,) he would have been writing not just for theatre but would have been writing for Eastenders, Holby City, Casualty, Waterloo Road, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, in addition to writing for theatre.  Or would have put his own slant on such productions as Game of Thrones and of course historical events.  Essentially William Shakespeare was writing and producing for a commercial enterprise, namely his own business and to make money.  In the modern context, he would have not only have been writing for theatre but also for television, film and web-based productions (i.e. House of Cards,) and similar productions as mentioned above.  This would be Shakespeare working in the modern world of the 21st Century.

A second step to demystfying Shakespeare is to realise that Shakespeare had been hi-jacked by the intellectuals in a way that was never intended and would have The Bard turning in his grave.  Shakespeare placed no punctuation in his writing.  It was left to the actor to punctuate and deliver the lines in their performance as they went along, emphasising the last word on each line as they went along.  This is Shakespeare work at its purest and truest.  It was the intellectuals who from the 19th Century onwards who began putting punctuation into the works of The Bard, not the great man himself. Shakespeare was more concerned with performance than producing a library of his works, though in the modern context, there is money to be paid from publishing his plays but his work would have been as accessible as those of Tom Clancy, Dan Brown and Michael Crichton.

Doing a course called ‘Demystifying Shakespeare’ full of RSC actors is a bit of a misnomer to me because if I had experience with the RSC I would not have been sitting in that class but then some actors as smart as they are, can be just as stupid and I think that was the case with many in that class because they clearly should not have been there and as such prevented someone like yourself from actually learning anything in what should have been a fantastic class for those truly wanting to get to grips with Shakespeare.  This is my personal point for view but as I have already said, if I had any kind of experience with the Royal Shakespeare Company (as an actor,) I would not have been in that class simply because I wouldn’t have needed to be there.

As to Colin David Reese’s Shakespearean Workshop.  What I found interesting with Colin’s workshop was you didn’t need to be well-versed in Shakespeare to attend.  In fact the less you knew about Shakespeare the better as you were more open to Colin’s approach, which is very original.  The only requirement was to be familiar with a monologue from Shakespeare.  Colin has spent many years studying, researching and performing Shakespeare and working with some of the greats like Gielgud so attending his workshop I was getting the benefit of his many years of experience not just as an Actor but a practitioner of Shakespeare.  I highly recommend Colin’s workshop.  You will not only enjoy it but find yourself well on your way with a much clearer view of Shakespeare and his works.

On a final note I would recommend having a look at Sparknotes Guide on Shakespeare.  I believe you can also find them on Shakespeare Study Guides – SparkNotes  which you will find helpful.  If you buy a guide of one of one the plays, what you will find is against the actual text, is a modern day language equivalent.  In acting terms, this would be the actual lines with the actual thought process while delivering the lines.  Hope this makes sense.

The above aside, I highly recommend Colin David Reese’s Shakespearean Workshop.

Regards,

Daniel.
Daniel Jude Gennis

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