Sunday, June 07, 2009

Speaking of Shakespeare

My first Shakespeare, or at least the first Shakespeare I remember, was a televised production of Much Ado About Nothing set just after World War I which I absolutely adored (could it be this? the hair looks right), though I did wonder for an embarassingly long time how a turn-of-the-17th-century writer could have set a play in the early 20th century (I really did). I was perhaps 9 or 12 or some such age.

M's first Shakespeare was the Northern Ballet Theatre's Midsummer Night's Dream at Sadler Wells, which set an impossibly high standard for both Shakespeare and ballet--it was her first ballet as well, and it was sublime. She was 7, and she prepared by reading the play, and I believe it was the actual play, not a children's version, though I may be wrong about that. I do recall that she would read it aloud on the Tube, which was quite darling, though it could have been pretentious in the wrong hands.

E's first Shakespeare was Much Ado About Nothing last night. Or rather, Much Ado About Nothing last night was her first live Shakespeare. She has been quite entranced with this children's Shakespeare for a long time now, and on Friday afternoon, she and G were taking turns reading Romeo and Juliet aloud to each other, inspired, I believe, by Taylor Swift (the song that will forever remind me of bar mitzvahs, Hebrew school carpool, H, and second grade girls in the back seat).

Unfortunately, the book does not include Much Ado About Nothing, so we hied to the library, where we discovered there is not much in the way of accessible Much Ado About Nothing, which strikes me as odd, because, confusing as Much Ado About Nothing may be, it is no more confusing than, say, The Tempest, which is the most outrageously confusing Shakespeare there is (and, dare I say, overrated?). Anyway, we ended up with this, which had a serviceable plot summary that we read together, and then we read the plot summary in the program together too, and by the time the play began, she was enormously excited, spurred on, no doubt, by my own Much Ado About Nothing excitement.

The production was incredibly fabulous--creative, inspired, brilliantly-acted, funny, and so linguistically sensitive as to make you feel the genius of Shakespeare. I know, that sounds like too much of a cliche to even write, except that it is a different thing to read Shakespeare and to watch Shakespeare. To make an audience at once feel that they are watching real people with real emotions--which is surely the goal of naturalistic theater, broadly speaking, of which Shakespeare is surely a progenitor--while at the same time highlighting the thematic richness of the language, well, let's just say it is not always done well, but last night it was.

Except for poor E, who was lost pretty much as soon as they opened their mouths, because, rich as Shakespeare's language may be, it is also decisively turn-of-the-17th century, which, for a second grader--and even, sometimes, for a seventh grader--is rough. She worked hard to follow what was going on, as I whispered a rapid-fire translation/explanation in her ear, and she loved the physical comedy, but it was a lot of work, and eventually she put her head in my lap and went to sleep (it was also kind of late).

So this got me thinking about the essence of Shakespeare. Despite the importance of Shakespeare's language, he is probably the most bowdlerized, abridged, revised, summarized author we've got, and in all those forms he has always been popular. As a reader, I've gotten most of my Shakespeare from the page, and it's been largely about language, probably more than plot. E, too, has gotten her Shakespeare from the page, but it's been about story, with hardly anything to do with language. Perhaps that's the point: what makes Shakespeare such a permanently powerful presence is that both language and story hold their own, and together, in a production like the one we saw last night, there is pretty much nothing better.


Sinda said...

I read this ( in my feed right before I read your Shakespeare post - I'm going to have to check it out.

Genevieve said...

Charles and Mary Lambs' Tales from Shakespeare work pretty well for getting kids familiar with not only the story but the language - if I remember right, they tell it in story form but use some of Shakespeare's language whenever possible.