I’ve asked a few friends, a good portion of whose lives have been in the theater, if they’d be willing to write on the following topic because I was curious how they’d respond: Why Shakespeare Matters. The serene, daring, brilliant, and delightful Katie Consamus sent me the following….enjoy!
The first time I can recall reading Shakespeare was in ninth grade English. We were required to read Romeo & Juliet out of some benign English textbook full of whitewashed classics that someone on some board had once deemed relevant or important.
I read Romeo & Juliet silently to myself. I found it difficult to muddle through, I thought it was confusing, I didn’t know half of the words, the storyline was ridiculous, and the whole thing was just too damn long. I had been drilled in class on the rhythm and meter and how amazing it was going to be and blah-de-blah-de-blah, but honestly, to me, the whole thing seemed like a damn waste of time. In summation, I was bored, and I thought Romeo & Juliet was a piece of shit.
I had a similar experience two years later when reading The Tempest in World Lit. It’s a miracle I didn’t forever stay turned off of Shakespeare after these well-meaning but totally misguided English class experiences. If our educational system continues to have its way, young people everywhere will continue to be bored by Shakespeare, because there is a secret to it all that no one is telling the students: Shakespeare is not meant to be read silently and studied in a classroom.
If you read a Shakespeare play silently to yourself, you might very well be bored. I certainly am, every single time; I, Katie Consamus, Shakespeare Lover. I, Katie Consamus, an actor by trade, whose biggest career fantasy is to play Lady MacBeth in a dark and gory production full of blood and sweat and tears, finds silent, solo reading of anything by Shakespeare to be incredibly dull.
Shakespeare’s words are alive. But they don’t live on the page. They live in the body. And that is the secret.
The first time I realized this was the first time I was given permission to leave the footnotes and the lexicons behind. I just spoke his words aloud, mindfully, slowly, without agenda. And the words vibrated in my body, and I discovered they had a life. If you had asked me to, I wouldn’t necessarily have been able to define each word I said. But what I could do, from that moment on, was tell you how the words made me feel. I could tell you intuitively which part of my body each word inhabited, and I could tell you what that did to affect my mind, my energy, and my spirit.
Try it. Say all the sounds. Form the words slowly. Give all of the consonants the attention they deserve. Give all the vowels their full space, not just in your mouth but also in your body. Let your heart and throat be open. And don’t you dare mumble.
Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!
Crack nature’s moulds, an germens spill at once,
That make ingrateful man!
Each plosive consonant gives me strength:
CRACK YOUR CHEEKS
Each open vowel makes me feel haunted and hollow:
DROWN’D THE COCKS
And then from here, without necessarily knowing the context, without knowing all of the plot, I am connected. I am connected to this person, and I become more connected to the plight of humankind. Because in my body (even if not in my brain yet), I am feeling something. I am feeling this man’s rage and pain. I am standing in his shoes without even trying, without even thinking. The words did it all for me. Everything was already in the text. I simply had to speak it, to allow it to unfold within me.
That is amazing.
And it doesn’t happen when you stare at the words on the page.
I don’t mean to dismiss here an academic approach to Shakespeare. Scholars study it, and their analysis and their lexicons and their dictionaries offer me insurmountable aid on my second (third, fourth, fifth, tenth, twentieth) look at a passage. But if I start with my brain instead of my body and my heart, I’m back in ninth grade English, hating Romeo & Juliet and losing out on the exploration of the genius that is Shakespeare.
Because, sure, he was a great wordsmith. He was very brainy with his skillful use of language and rhythm, and he uses an extensive vocabulary. But at the end of the day, he made up so many words. He made up words when he knew the feeling but not the answer, and we know what he meant by, sure, some suffixes or some Latin roots or blah-de-blah-de-blah… but mostly we know what he meant by how the vibration of the words feels in the body.
Shakespeare understands human nature in all of its flawed and tarnished glory. He understands it viscerally, and when we experience his words viscerally, either reading them aloud ourselves or listening to someone else speak them, we gain a deeper understanding of ourselves and the world in which we live. I am a better, more compassionate person for my investigation of the human condition through the theatre, and William Shakespeare makes my job as an actor so damn easy; all I have to do is allow his text to do all the work for me.
And just for the hell of it, a few final thoughts to assuage my remaining 9th grade complaints about Romeo & Juliet:
Shakespeare’s plays are long. I’m not a purist, and I remain quite proud of and pleased with a 90 minute cutting of Hamlet that I performed in grad school. We lost some side-plots and even a few characters, but that’s evolution. If you have a whole cake and you’re only going to enjoy yourself if you eat a slice, just eat the slice, right? Don’t down the whole thing just to say you ate it. So why not let the same thing be true for Shakespeare? Take your journey a few pages at a time, or enjoy a condensed version. The words are still his, and they’ll still live in your body, and you’ll still learn something about your life or the world.
And as to Romeo & Juliet’s ridiculous plot? I’m expected to believe that thirteen year-old Juliet found her soulmate and is willing to die for him? “Oh my god, spare me the stupidity!” I recall thinking. Well this past June, I witnessed the marriage of my friends Tyler and Ellen, who met each other, true soulmates, at age thirteen. I was certainly proven wrong in the best way possible. And I will never roll my cynical eyes at love in any manifestation ever again.