Shakespeare in Action

CJO | ET Student
CJO photo

Class notes, programme, and text of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. | Photo by CJO

The greatest way to learn Shakespeare is to see it performed. This phrase is used over and over, but I never realized how true it was until this study abroad trip. By the time we fly home, our class will have read five of his plays, performed scenes from four and have seen three live performances by The Royal Shakespeare Company and The Globe Theatre. As much as we can study plays in the classroom there is something about seeing them on stage that makes Shakespeare’s words come alive. From tension to humor and everything in between, Shakespeare is best understood in action.

In Coriolanus, the title character approaches tribunes to try to reason with them. They, however, would rather eliminate him, placing the rule into the hands of the people. A first read of this scene gives the impression of importance, which was amplified when seeing it live. However, it wasn’t until we began to study it in preparation for our own performance that I really understood the implications and devastation in this scene.

Coriolanus is a warrior who belongs on the battlefield, but when others try to shape him into a refined politician, he snaps, leaving the fate of the nation in unsteady hands. From his halting speech where he pleads to, “Throng our large temples with shows of peace, / And not our streets with war!” to his famous words hurled at the people he calls, “You common cry of curs, whose breath I hate / As reek o’th’rotten fens…” the power of Coriolanus standing on stage allows the audience to understand the weight of this powerful moment.

In Much Ado About Nothing, the main characters, Beatrice and Benedick, have a sharp, bantering, and often mocking relationship. The two are deeply in love, though they deny it for most of the show, instead circling each other with words and wit. Some of Shakespeare’s humor is bound to leap off the page, but most of it is found in performance.

Standing in the open air in The Globe, I found his humor coming to life. When Beatrice says “Signor Benedick; nobody marks you” and Benedick responds with “What, my dear Lady Disdain! Are you yet living?” the audience roared with laughter in a way that the reader might not. On stage, the tensions, relationships, dread, and humor all come alive. What once was static ink on paper suddenly becomes a living, breathing language. While seeing his plays performed or performing one ourselves, we see Shakespeare in action. And, after all, that is the greatest way to learn.



Categories: Literature

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