Yesterday, as well as being St George’s Day, was Shakespeare’s birthday. There were celebrations a-plenty, and quite rightly so: but what was very conspicuous by its absence – at least, if it was there, I missed it – was any encouragement actually to read his plays. One might have thought that the best way to honour any writer is to read what that writer has written, but somehow, when it comes to the writer widely claimed to be “our greatest”, reading does not seem very high on the agenda. Even otherwise well-read people appear not to have read much, if any, of his writing. And the unthinking mantra “Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be seen, not read” seems to be commonplace. Here, for instance, is Mark Rylance, one of our foremost Shakespearean actors, on the matter:
Shakespeare’s plays were supposed to be performed and reading them was “the last thing the author intended,” [Rylance] said.
There’s no point overwhelming this post with further links to illustrate my point: that these plays “were meant to be seen, not read” has now become, more or less, accepted wisdom, as even the most cursory Google search will testify.
There are, of course, several arguments to be presented against this contention that these plays were intended to be seen and not read. The most obvious is that it’s not a question of either one or the other – that one may do both, and that both are enriching in their different ways. One may point out that many good texts of these works – the Good Quartos – were published in Shakespeare’s own lifetime, and that it is unlikely that such publications could have appeared without the author’s own authorisation; and that if Shakespeare did indeed authorise these publications, as seems likely, then he clearly intended them to be read: after all, we know for a fact that a great many major dramatists in future eras (Ibsen, Shaw, etc.), and at least one dramatist from Shakespeare’s own time, certainly wanted their plays to be read as well as seen.
One may point out also that Shakespeare’s writing is rich and multi-layered – as one would expect from “our greatest writer” – and that the riches on offer are better absorbed when read and meditated upon in one’s own time in the study, rather than heard in the theatre at the speed of sound. One may question also how well one may get to know the plays if one were to rely only on performance: after all, how many Shakespeare plays do most of us get to see in performance? How often? Are they all good productions, that do justice to the plays? Further, is each performance not necessarily an interpretation, which, fine though it may be, highlights inevitably only certain aspects of the work at the expense of others? That only when one encounters these works oneself, free of the interpretations of others, can one appreciate its multi-facetedness, and arrive, as one does with other major works of literature, at one’s own interpretations?
One may go further, and argue that if reading these plays is an enriching experience – and I can personally vouch for it that it is – then it really doesn’t matter what the author had intended. The author had also intended Rosalind and Cleopatra to be played by boys, but we don’t, thankfully, turn our backs on actresses playing these roles.
I have put forward these arguments and others many a time, but I don’t think they have made much impact: at least, I don’t think I have encouraged many people, if indeed any at all, to read these plays. And that’s a shame. People need no encouragement to see the plays, after all: both the Globe Theatre, and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre get huge audiences: indeed, it is often quite difficult getting tickets for the latter, unless one books well in advance. It is the reading, not the seeing, that requires encouragement. And that mantra “meant to be seen, not read” is hardly conducive to encouraging anyone to read. Quite the contrary, I’d have thought.
So the next time I hear that mantra repeated, I think I will dispense with all my usual arguments, and merely counter with “How do you know?” That really is the only answer necessary. Whenever someone says that reading these plays was “the last thing the author intended”, the obvious riposte is surely: “How the hell do you know what went on in Shakespeare’s mind?”
In the meantime, we go on celebrating Shakespeare as “our greatest writer”, while even people who are otherwise well-read do not consider reading him. I must say I find that rather sad. For unless we read Shakespeare, celebrating him as “our greatest writer” is no more than lip service.