Shakespeare is meant to be performed

Emily Doran

Perhaps the most interesting statement I’ve heard made about Shakespeare’s plays is that they are meant to be performed, not read. Although I believe there are innumerable benefits associated with privately reading and studying his works, I agree with the idea that they should not be confined to an English classroom or a private living room. His scripts are, after all, just that: scripts. They are meant to be acted, seen, heard and experienced in a public setting.

With that in mind, I went to see Grand Valley’s production of The Comedy of Errors several weeks ago. I was not disappointed. The actors knew their Shakespeare well and executed it with confidence and ability. All-in-all, I thoroughly enjoyed the production. It certainly acted as a prime testament of the theory that Shakespeare’s plays are at their finest when showcased onstage.

This enactment reminded me of my own involvement with performing Shakespeare. During high school, I had the opportunity to act in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This experience represented the culmination of my evolution from a casual Shakespeare reader to a performer.

In order to provide some background, I will note that I read my first Shakespeare play in ninth grade and then continued reading more throughout high school. I only became truly interested in Shakespeare, however, when I read Hamlet for the first time in tenth grade. I was required to thoroughly analyze the text and then write about it, which forced me to pay close attention. Because of this, my understanding of the script was far greater than it would have been otherwise, and my enjoyment in reading it increased significantly. At this point, though, I was still “guilty” of confining Shakespeare.

Then, at the end of my junior year, I auditioned for A Midsummer Night’s Dream and was cast as Hermia. Still, the first two weeks of rehearsals, I did not step foot onstage. Instead, my castmates and I spent our time studying our lines – with open Shakespeare lexicons at hand – and learning how to speak them properly. I was reminded, again, how beneficial it is to study Shakespeare, but I realized that these exercises were still only one piece of the puzzle leading up to something more.

Finally, we began to work onstage, and I came to understand one of the primary reasons why Shakespeare is best when performed: Since the language in Shakespeare’s plays is archaic, it can be difficult for modern readers and listeners to understand, but when performed with appropriate body language, it is easy to follow along and enjoy.

I witnessed an expert use of body language in The Comedy of Errors this past weekend and was fortunate enough to be able to experiment with it myself in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In both cases, it helped the audiences considerably. Using body language, we could tell a story (which we had been studying for weeks or months) to people who maybe had never heard or read it before, and they could both understand and appreciate it.

So even though I am certainly an advocate for reading and studying Shakespeare’s scripts, I believe you can’t beat acting them out or going to see them performed. There is a certain level of appreciation and enjoyment of his plays that can only be attained in this type of setting, and because of this, Shakespeare should not be confined to a classroom but should instead be experienced on a much grander scale.