Thinking about Shakespeare

For today’s post, I originally planned to write something about murdered gamekeepers in the winter of 1843/44 (this is the backdrop for my current WIP, which starts with the murder of a gamekeeper), but because that’s a rather depressing topic and because I stumbled across something last night that bowled me over, I’m going to talk about something else.

Or rather, someone.

Mr. Shakespeare.

As you might know, my day job consists of torturing teaching students at Mainz University, and at the moment I’m teaching Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in one of my classes. One of the problems I always have with teaching a play is that the text doesn’t really come alive until it is performed. I always include a session on the Elizabethan stage, and if I have time enough, I also try to show at least excerpts from one of the many film adaptations of Shakespeare. (And I do like Trevor Nunn’s Twelfth Night with Imogen Stubbs as Viola and the dashing Toby Stephens as Orsino – even though Orsino is a bit of a wet blanket! – and – oh! – the wonderful Ben Kingsley as the fool. I haven’t yet figured out why this adaptation is set in the 19th century, but what the heck!)

So a few weeks ago I was looking for some more detailed info about The Globe, and I checked on YouTube whether I could find something featuring the inside of The Globe. Instead I found a short little film in which David Crystal and his son Ben talk about the pronunciation in Shakespeare’s time. (David Crystal is a linguist who in the eyes of academia has done the unforgivable: He has made his research topics interesting for the unwashed masses. This is generally considered to be A Very Bad Thing.) (Please note the sarcastic tone here. Personally, I think he is rather wonderful, and I heartily recommend his book The Story of English in 100 Words – fascinating stuff!) This is what I found:

(WP is supposed to embed this video, but I haven’t yet managed to embed videos on my own blog. Hmph. So I hope it works here.)

Fascinating, isn’t it?

But it gets even better! Last night I stumbled across this talk by Ben Crystal, where he talks about performing Shakespeare, about developing scenes using the invisible cues within the text itself, and, of course, about the Original Pronunciation.

It’s like… Ooooooh my! Light bulbs!

In the middle of that talk, I had to pause the film and order all of his books on Shakespeare. And then I wrote a quick e-mail to our course administration office and told them I’d like to teach a double dose of drama next term. Including a class on Shakespeare. 🙂


So let’s hear it: Do you have a favourite Shakespeare play? And what’s your favourite film adaptation of Shakespeare?


P.S.: I’m so going to model one of my future heroes on Ben Crystal! 🙂

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8 Responses to Thinking about Shakespeare

  1. HJ says:

    I love that Imogen Stubbs version of Twelfth Night, and Emma Thompson in Much Ado About Nothing. And I remember when I was at school being amazed at how much easier it was to understand the plays when one saw them acted, either on stage or in film. I saw a production of Romeo and Juliet which really opened my eyes to the double-entendres in Shakespeare (explored further in a book called Filthy Shakespeare). Of course, all this would have been immediately available to his Elizabethan audience.

    I wonder whether it wouldn’t be better for every course on one of his plays to start with the students watching it, before they ever open the book and start reading it. Or does that run the risk of one director’s interpretation colouring their experience?

    • And I remember when I was at school being amazed at how much easier it was to understand the plays when one saw them acted, either on stage or in film.

      Yes, exactly! For the longest time, drama did absolutely nothing for me because I just couldn’t envision what exactly was happening. So I’m definitely thinking about telling my students to watch films of the plays we are going to discuss in class. (There won’t be enough time to watch an adaptation of each of the 3-4 plays I plan to cover.)

  2. Sarah says:

    We were lucky enough to welcome Ben Crystal to our theatre on a recent visit he made to the States. He was lovely (will make a very good hero). I teach teachers how to teach Shakespeare, too. We focus intently on how the plays were performed and look at all of the information in the text that gives the actor (or students) clues about choices they may want to make about a character. Movies don’t quite get to the heart of the matter for me for a couple of reasons. 1. they lack a live audience with whom the actors can interact (Shakespeare couldn’t turn the lights off, so he wrote the audience in to the plays in amazing ways). 2. They close down the available options–unless you watch more than one version of the same scene. One of the beautiful (and sustaining) things about Shakespeare is the infinite variety of choice available to actors (or students) when they dig into characters. A look or a vocal change can sway your feelings one way or the other about the entire shape of the tale (as you know, when you write novels, you account for that in the descriptions you give, but it is left up to players in Shakespeare). Such exciting stuff. Anyway, good luck with your courses, hope you keep finding things to love.
    (Love what you said about popular culture and the no-no academics–so true, though thankfully less so than it used to be.)

    • Sarah, while I do agree with you that watching one film or one stage production of a play might in a way close down further options of interpretation, I still think film adaptations are a good way into the play – I’ve always had enormous problems with drama because I just couldn’t envision what was going on. In my experience, film adaptations (or filmed stage productions) can serve as excellent springboards into a play.

  3. Lisa Wagner says:

    I love that long workshop by Ben Crystal! I had seen the other video before reading your post and was fascinated by the original pronunciation idea. Thanks for sharing the second video too! So fascinating!

  4. Sandra, thank you so much for posting this! I’m your guest blogger today and as I scrolled down to your post I got very excited. I’ve loved Shakespeare forever (I first saw Hamlet in elementary school), and had the utter joy to study in college with a Shakespearean scholar. A year or two ago my local movie theater ran a Shakespeare festival of live plays filmed at the Globe, with a full house – so fabulous! The idea that there is yet another way, a more authentic way, of experiencing Shakespeare is so exciting. I hope I have the opportunity to see a play performed with the original pronunciations.

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