Painful Insight

Sir Kenneth Branagh in MacbethThis is a post I did not want to write, about a thought I *really* do not want to have.

I love Shakespeare. After a rocky beginning with what to me was then an incomprehensible text (Julius Caesar) in tenth grade English, my life was changed by performing in Macbeth my senior year. Yes, a high school production of “the Scottish play.” Our drama instructor was a “sin boldly” kind of guy. I doubled as Banquo and the Doctor and got into stage fighting with a very heavy steel sword. Of course I did not fully “get it” as a 17-year-0ld, but it provided me entrée into the language and meaning of Shakespearean theatre. One of my all-time favorite movies is Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V. Pacifist that I am, I was almost ready to go fight after his St. Crispin’s Day speech.

So it was with great anticipation that I went to see an HD presentation of The National Theatre’s “recorded live” production of Macbeth with Branagh and Alex Kingston. I *thoroughly* enjoyed it. In particular, I was amazed at how clear the entire cast was in getting across the language of the play in support of the essence of the piece. In fact, one of my questions was that a time or two it seemed that there was an over-emphasis on clarity, slowing things down a tad too much.

So why the “painful” in the title? That has to do with the response of my companion, my wife. Unlike me, she had no redeeming history with Shakespeare in her educational experience. She’s tried some of The Bard’s plays as an adult and has been left underwhelmed if not utterly bewildered. She accompanied me because she sincerely wanted to understand why I’ve been so obnoxious about this play for years. (I don’t rattle on constantly, but, OK, it comes up from time to time.) She likes me (you’ll have to take that on faith) and as a consequence was as far down the “benefit of the doubt” road as it is possible for someone to go. In the end, while she did not dislike it she was not particularly impressed. And here it is: she could not understand the language–not just the imagery or the poetry–the language itself. As I said, this was a stunningly clear reading and she could not follow the text. Let’s be clear. She is no lazy bumpkin. She worked at it and wanted to get it; and she is, for the record, an extremely intelligent musician.

This is the part I don’t want to think, much less acknowledge in public. I fear we have arrived at a point where the ship has sailed (or is getting ready to push off from the dock) on Shakespeare’s Elizabethan English as a viable commodity in the U.S. We translate Aristophanes. Chaucer’s Middle English is only presented for archival purposes. (Vatican II recognized the reality that Latin was not the language of the Catholic Church’s future.) There will inevitably come a point, even if it’s a century from now, when Shakespeare’s beautiful poetry and powerful insight into the human condition will not be able to support itself unaided on the stage or screen. Sigh.

And the related–even more important–lesson is that, for the public not of or educated in the culture of the Western canon, work from that canon is as perplexing as this Macbeth was to Julie. That is a significant fact of programming (and hence, mission) reality facing all of us who work in the arts.


On a *completely* unrelated topic, my buddy Marty Pottenger is doing amazing work with art improving community in Portland, Maine. She is doing an Indiegogo campaign for it right now and, if you have an interest in art that is deeply meaningful to a community, you should at the very least check out her video about it: Art at Work. I recommend it highly!


And, on one more “off topic” topic, with the Holiday season upon us, I’m taking two weeks off. See you in the New Year!



Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. Gene says

    I wouldn’t despair just yet. Have you seen Joss Whedon’s film version of Much Ado about Nothing? It makes a brilliant case for a contemporary setting for Shakespeare’s words. The song “Sigh no more” (words by WS, music by Whedon) is itself worth the price of admission.

  2. says

    I saw the NTLive production of “Macbeth” with friends last week, and I can understand both your reaction and your wife’s. While I think that every effort was made by the directors to make the story and text easy to understand, what went wrong is right there in your essay – “a time or two it seemed that there was an over-emphasis on clarity, slowing things down a tad too much.”

    I think Branagh occasionally sacrificed the fluidity and sense of the whole sentence in favor of individual words. He frequently ignored punctuation, and instead stressed an important word or key idea. The result is that sometimes the overall sense was lost. Kingston made similar choices – or was directed to do so.

    In contrast, a few weeks ago I had the privilege of seeing the Globe’s “Twelfth Night”/”Richard III” on Broadway. I can’t say it any better than Ben Brantley of the New York Times:

    “These productions are suffused with that most fundamental of Shakespearean virtues, faith. The performers here trust wholly in Shakespeare’s words and in the ability of the audience to understand them.”

    The actors in the Globe’s productions spoke the text at a steady and natural pace, without over-emphasis or choppiness. I’ve seen “Twelfth Night” dozens of times, and there were lines I felt I’d never heard before, and obscure jokes I’ve always thought should be cut that landed perfectly.

    I appreciate the question you put forth. I’d offer that instead of translating or updating the language, we should improve the text and voice training of our performers. We’ve found at our Free Shakespeare in the Park performances, a casual passer-by will suddenly pause to listen, arrested by a clear and well-spoken phrase.

    I also agree with you that inviting audiences to engage more deeply with the canon is critical. This can happen at a much younger age than it does in most schools. My own comfort with Shakespeare comes from early exposure – I saw my first production at age 5. We start working on Shakespearean songs and poetry with pre-school children in our educational programs, when their young brains are used to absorbing new words.

    For those who haven’t had the benefit of starting young, all is not lost! Performance-based learning works with adults as well, as we’ve found with our community theatre program Shakespeare For All. We should welcome everyone to speak the words themselves – still the best and most satisfying way to understand them.

    Rebecca Ennals, Artistic Director, San Francisco Shakespeare Festival

  3. Lillian shelton says

    Just read the post about the panthers football game. A few years ago I had a similar response when I attended my one and only professional sporting event – a Panthers/Redskins exhibition game. What really astonished me was the lack of parking and how little it mattered! the prevailing assumption is “if there is no parking they won’t come” was proved wrong wrong wrong! Ticket holders were happy to walk blocks and blocks to the stadium after paying parking fees to the various community charities managing the empty business lots on a Sunday afternoon. Seemed like a win-win situation There was a party atmosphere watching folks tote their football paraphernalia ! Just a thought for downtown arts presenters with limited parking.