sábado, junho 04, 2016

Making Shakespeare Intelligible to Modern Audiences: "Essential Shakespeare" by Pamela Bickley, Jenny Stevens



Published 2013.

In Shakespeare's day, the pupils learnt Latin in order to study the writings of classical Rome. I take it that they studied 'Golden Age' Latin rather than the Medieval Latin of the Church? Or did they study both forms? How strange that today in many schools in England it is thought unnecessary or inappropriate to teach Shakespeare, or if his works are taught, the language is changed into a modern form, or videos are relied upon. Some educationists see it as more important to develop the 'creative skills' of the pupils than to bother to reveal to them where the language has come from and how elegantly it has been used by Shakespeare and other great writers. Thus they deprive their pupils of part of their heritage.

How interesting that Shakespeare´s first encounter with Poetry was through Roman Poets, such as Ovid and Virgil, rather than Chaucer; and that he first fell in love with Drama through Seneca and the like, rather than through mystery and morality English plays! In a way, I feel highly identified with such passion for reading in another language, for I consider myself so fortunate to be able to read Shakespeare´s plays in their original Elizabethan English. This takes us to the world of theatre, which in Elizabethan times was for all categories of people. Those who had enough education could enjoy allusions and references to classics, those who were not able to perceive classic charades enjoyed comic figures and really comprehensible situations (wife's infidelity, comic arguments, etc. I think that is what made the difference: Elizabethan theatre was a place where people from different social layers could find something adequate to their requests. The French theatre at the Molière's time (about 50 years later and, certainly, in different social and historical circumstances) was less "democratic".

I knew the basics of the Elizabethan education system -- the rote learning, the selected passages, and so on -- and I was aware that Shakespeare's plays were rich in allusion, but I've never heard it all put together so coherently and convincingly before. Bickley and Stevens show us that a brilliant lad from Stratford really would have had the tools to write plays, poems and sonnets.

What I still find amazing, though, is that he decided to be an “actor”: "You know that education you wangled me, Dad? Well, I'm going to make good use of it -- no, don't get mad! -- I'm going to go to London and be an actor!" Once he was part of a company, though, I think it's easy to see how he could have thought, "I can write better than that!" and moved into writing. At least that’s what I’ve chosen to believe…

I would think more is the pity of our loss of contact with the classical world. I broached aspects via studying literature at school and university and through literature courses that taught classical mythology. That added so many deeper dimensions to life and to my understanding of the human story. I feel it is well worth maintaining in education but, unfortunately, even literature seems to be disappearing from many schools.

Bickley’s and Steven’s book rekindled my taste for classical literature. What a joy it was to have those little connections between the classical works and Shakespeare’s works at my disposal. Going to classical world is the way to the sources of a cultural world. A close study of mythology in a literary context, with the curiosity of ancient Greeks is really important to understand the complexity of human beings. Reading Classics and the Bible has made literature -all of Art -the richer an experience. Having an understanding of the history of the time is also important. What were the political struggles of the time? The daily life? Who were the important figures, and why? All this and more helps to not only understand a piece of art, but also help us see what parallels can be drawn to our own time and what significance it holds both when it was created and now. It’s books like these that make me realise “there are more things in heaven and earth, […], Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.


I think that you can just watch the plays now without knowing Ovid, but you gain much more insight when you realise the significance of even small phrases, seemingly scattered through the plays. You realise how skillfully crafted the plays are. For instance, the link between the Acteon line and the final scene could be missed by modern audiences, but would have been picked up by those with the knowledge of those stories. The more understanding we have of the references Shakespeare uses the more we gain from the plays. I think that the stories in the Metamorphosis would have been more generally known outside the group privileged by a Grammar school education or the services of a private tutor. Golding’s translation of the “Metamorphosis” into English had been around since 1567 and it ran through several editions in the second half of the 16th Century. Shakespeare was not the only dramatist and poet to draw on the Metamorphosis although he has become the most well-known and celebrated. I was familiar as a child with the characters and story lines having read them in books about Greek and Roman myths and legends - much sanitised as I found out later. Very useful when I was reading Shakespeare later on. I am not suggesting that such children’s books existed in Elizabethan England but oral storytelling and retelling did and there is no doubt of the energy and imagination in the stories told by Ovid. I know of people who enjoyed the TV adaptation of “Wolf Hall”, without any knowledge of the history behind it. They simply appreciated it for its own sake. I would argue that it’d be even more enjoyable, armed with that knowledge. I believe his audiences drew from all segments of society--from the rather base groundlings through the nobility. That would explain why we see him dropping classical references right alongside penis jokes. Shakespeare wrote for everyone in the audience. if modern audiences had a classical education, they would understand and appreciate Shakespeare's plays on a whole different level. The groundlings (unwashed masses lol) would perhaps have a better handle on the imagery of the stag (the horned beast of the woods) in rut, pursuing the females, rather than the classical references to Ovid. Shakespeare's writing worked on many levels. The modern equivalent, though certainly not in quality, might be the Disney films with humour that adults appreciate alongside that which the munchkins enjoy. Re-reading this play makes one realize just how heavily Shakespeare depended upon the audience's education to put across his themes. One tends to think of the audience as having been drawn heavily from the lower classes, and thus uneducated, rather than from the grammar school educated groups. But then I suppose, who actually has the disposable income with which to attend theatrical events but the educated? I can also see why some of Shakespeare is unintelligible to modern audiences; we've practically abandoned all education, the arts and literature. It’s hardly enough to put anything in one's head but a desire to learn further--or for many, not.

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