Ben Crystal: I am a lucky man

Section from Hamlet

I’m a lucky man. I’ve travelled the full spectrum of Shakespeare appreciation. I’ve now played Hamlet, Macbeth, and Pericles, spoken his Sonnets, written books about him, and directed his plays. But I hated Shakespeare in school.

The phrase that frequently comes up when I begin telling this story, is “I was lucky, I had a good teacher”. However ‘luck’ shouldn’t be a part of it. Why should only the lucky few find their way into the bright and beautiful, sparkling-shiny world of Shakespeare?

I’ve spent much of my adult life finding ways to blow the cobwebs from his name. As I started my acting career, and latterly, my writing, directing, and producing career in Shakespeare, the question that was being asked most was:

How do we make his plays relevant, accessible?

The answer is often by dragging his plays into the 21st century, updating the setting or the language, or by casting a famous face from TV and Film, and give audiences a route in that way.

Shakespeare is accessible because he tackles what makes us all tick, as humans, and especially when we’re put in difficult situations.

His language, while 400 years old, is still the language we use today. It’s changed a bit. Some words aren’t used anymore, and others have changed their meaning, but there aren’t that many (only around 5% in the whole canon as it turns out) that might trip a modern young Shakespearean up.

How do we make Shakespeare relevant and accessible to our younglings?

How to stop them from staggering down a similar path to me, and save them from needing luck?

Introduce the plays as ‘plays’, rather than ‘reads’. They never originally intended to be read cover to cover. Most of his audience were illiterate, and those that were able to read were rarely able to buy the plays, so would never have read them as we do in school.

The plays would be handed out piece-meal, each character’s lines in a part, with only the cue-lines of when to speak. The actor, one of 16 or so who worked with Shakespeare day in, day out, would keep his (women weren’t allowed to act on stage until after 1660) part with him until he had committed it to memory, and then the part would only exist in his head, heart, and tongue.

Shakespeare knew this, and found a way to direct his actors through the text, and the text alone.

So when I asked what iambic pentameter was in my English Literature class, I was only told it meant de-DUM de-DUM de-DUM de-DUM de-DUM, most clearly heard in the line

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?!

I wasn’t told that it is the natural underlying rhythm, the heartbeat, of the English language. That one line of iambic pentameter naturally fills the human lungs, and is a comfortable length to fit into working memory. That de-DUM rhythm pushes you towards the more important words or syllables in a line. So that when speaking the opening of Sonnet 18 we know I is a more important word than Shall – that the question is Shall I (me instead of someone else), rather than Shall I (which sounds more like Hmmm I’m not sure whether I will compare your beauty to a summer’s day or not…).

I wasn’t told that thee is an informal version of you, much like the tu / vous or te / usted differentiation in French or Spanish. This means that we know that the speaker is talking to someone very familiar to him. Perhaps a lover already in his life, rather than someone he’s just met…

And there’s so much more, packed into each and every line. The text is filled with clues, a map, hand-drawn, or rather quill-drawn, by Shakespeare, guiding whoever next wants to journey with him.

I’m sure there are teachers out there, reading this, who’ll say, This is unnecessary, I already teach this.

To which I say, Bravo, and chapeau!

Your students are the lucky ones.

The Oxford Illustrated Shakespeare Dictionary is an innovative and award-winning dictionary. clearly explains over 4,000 Shakespearean words and phrases. Illustrated throughout and with an additional thematic section, Shakespeare’s world is brought to life on the page.

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