I've been remiss about keeping my promise of almost a year ago to blog individually about the authors I call collectively 'the 26'--the first 26 favorites who came to mind when I was doing a '25 Things about Me' riff on Facebook in 2009. Among other things, I wanted to make recommendations of how readers (by which I mean especially ebook readers) could approach the 26.
Let's take the bull by the horns today by talking for a few minutes about Shakespeare--surely, it would seem, the most daunting of the 26, and until recently one particularly ill served by ebook technology.
Shakespeare was of course a playwright. So were, to some extent, at least 11 others of the 26: Büchner, Euripides and Schiller (it was their plays I was thinking about when I included each of these three); Chekhov (a special case: better known to the general public as a playwright but to fiction writers most important as an author of short stories); Diderot, Dumas, Marguerite Duras, Henry James, Sade and Wodehouse (six authors best remembered for work in other genres but who wrote between them some 85 full-length plays); and the unclassifiable Heinrich von Kleist (a) who could not be contained by any genre, (b) all of whose works I was thinking of collectively when I named him and (c) most of whose eight plays still 'hold the stage' in German-speaking countries 200 years after his death.
The first thing to be said about Shakespeare's plays could be said about those of most of the other 11 as well:
If you have to choose between seeing a good stage production of a Shakespearean play and reading the play, see the stage production.
Shakespeare's plays, like most plays that are ever produced, were written to be performed, not read.
One of the hallmarks of a good stage production of Shakespeare is that every line of the text will make sense, will be understandable: the text will be opened up, not sloughed over, plowed through, mugged past. The audience will be lifted up, not condescended to.
The ease with which you can find good (and great) productions of Shakespeare may have something to do with where you live and where you travel. But there are surprisingly good (and a few surprisingly bad) productions almost everywhere. My own preference as a theatre-goer is for productions that people attend out of sheer love of the experience and not, say, to be seen attending a high-cultural event. (Why pass up falling in love, just to stay in love with some version of yourself?) I can tell you from personal experience that there are great productions of Shakespeare to be found in high-school auditoriums and municipal stages. And the presence of 'name' actors in the cast neither guarantees nor rules out that a production will be a good one.
So, good Shakespeare is not always easy to find. What this suggests to me is that we should reward it (with our patronage) when we find it, and that we be ready to take chances in the hope of stumbling upon great experiences. In most cases, the local theatre company doing A Midsummer Night's Dream is taking a bigger chance in staging it than we are in attending....
I've already gone on longer than I intended to in this first 'segment' on Shakespeare. When we return to him, I'll try to say something (very general) about Shakespeare on film (and on DVD, which is not exactly the same thing) before tackling Shakespeare editions available as ebooks. (There's hope on both fronts.)
Before I sign off, though, let me express my indebtedness to Jim Carpenter, which on the subject of Shakespeare in performance is even more obvious than usual. There's the conventional qualifier: if you benefit from what I say here, give him the credit; if not, I'm the one to blame.