“Meant to be seen, not read”

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.

24 responses to this post.

  1. Rylance of course doesn’t believe Shakespeare was Shakespeare, he’s a great actor but he’s also one of those odd Shakespeare-conspiracy bods.

    That said, while I have no idea what Shakespeare intended, I do agree that the plays are better seen than read, and that reading a play is not remotely a substitute for seeing it performed.

    A play on the page is a skeleton, a framework, a manual almost for creating art rather than a finished piece of art itself. The play is the thing. The actual play, with actors, a director, sets, costumes and so on. The text is vital, but it’s the skeleton not the entire body.

    Intent is as you say irrelevant. If a letter by Shakespeare were found tomorrow in which he talked about how he hoped people would read his plays, not just see them, I don’t think that would change my view. That’s why though I love seeing Shakespeare performed, I no longer read him (but I have, in the past, so while you will doubtless think I’m wrong if I am I’m wrong from a place of experience rather than assumption).

    As for greatest writer, he’s a great playwright. The idea of a greatest writer to me, whoever it is, is slightly bizarre. Personally I would strongly prefer it if we didn’t celebrate him as our greatest writer, it creates a wholly needless barrier. I’d much prefer we just celebrated him as what he was, a great dramatist, brililant even, but there’s no need to put him at the top of some notional league table.

    If we stopped calling him our greatest writer it would make him much less daunting, make people new to his work less nervous of approaching it. People might even read him then.


    • Hello Max, In the first place, I agree with you completely when you argue for the epithet “greatest” to be dropped. Literature is not a competitive sport, and it is foolish to present it as such. I made use of that epithet in my post simply because I saw it used so liberally yesterday, with not the slightest encouragement actually to read what “our greatest writer” had written, that I felt genuinely dispirited.

      As for the play being but a “skeleton”, I think that argument can be made for other literary forms also. Reading is not a passive activity: to read a major work of literature is hard work. For any work of literature, we need a reader to complete it. Thus, different readers who have read the same text of Mansfield Park, say, will come away from the experience with different ideas of the character of Fanny Price, of what are the major themes of the novel, and so on. The reader is always required to put the flesh onto the skeleton, as it were. It may be argued that the reader needs to put on more flesh in a play than in a novel, but if that is so, the difference between reading play and novel becomes one of degree, rather than of kind. I have tried to make the case for reading plays (plays in general, not necessarily Shakespeare) here.


  2. I profoundly agree, Himadri. As someone who, despite trying, just cannot enjoy theatre and especially cannot enjoy theatrical Shakespeare, my argument against stage Shakespeare always really come down to taste. But I think there are solid grounds, whatever one’s taste, for saying there is particularly value to reading WS, and you lay them out admirably.

    The quality of the language, not to mention its difficulty, will always be more rewarding when one has more time to appreciate it and think it over. Or at least, the reader stands to get more out of the language, appreciate its playfulness, multiplicity, etc. And I suspect that even a highly educated person would fail to understand large parts of a performed WS play if they hadn’t read it first.

    And yes, why are we so hung up on WS’s intentions! We don’t need to appreciate Homer by having a blind bard sing it to us! The logical end-point would be to say that museums are also inauthentic and not the proper thing, because everything is shipped thousands of miles, and put in cases, and curated. But that’s the thing! If we want to understand the past, to some extent we have to render it to our gaze, translate it to our time and space.

    The best translation of WS to our time and space is, unquestionably, to read him. This necrophiliac obsession with some ‘authentic’ Shakespeare, and our unease with a translated bard mediated through our own cultural lens, suggests a deep insecurity. The original moments are always passed and irrecoverable – when a culture loses faith in the business of reinterpreting and reframing its own cultural heritage, it’s usually in trouble.


    • By the way, I’ve been meaning to write a post on this subject for years. You git.


    • I remember your telling me that you couldn’t appreciate Shakespeare on stage, and, possibly because I had too much to drink at the time (that’s my excuse!), I couldn’t counter it. But yes, that’s certainly a matter of taste, which, as we all know is not something that is open to dispute. But if one can read Samson Agonistes as closet drama, i don’t see why we shouldn’t be able to read, say, Othello or The Winter’s Tale also as closet drama. Even if it were to be proven beyond all doubt that Shakespeare didn’t intended his plays to be read as such, there is no reason, as you say, why that should matter a jot. Similarly, if Samson Agonistes can work performed on stage, then I don’t see why it shouldn’t be. Many don’t seem to realise that Ibsen’s Brand and Peer Gynt were also intended as closet dramas (they’re both too long for a complete performance on a single evening), but no-one objects to performances of trimmed texts on the grounds that this was not what Ibsen had intended.

      Cheers, Himadri


  3. Wonderful defense, Himadri. Max is right that reading a play is a poor – or let’s say middlin’ – substitute for seeing it performed, but the reverse is true as well, seeing a play is not such a good substitute for reading it, just as listening to a performance of a book is a middlin’ substitute for reading it. For a performance, the text is just a skeleton; but for reading, the text is bone, flesh, and blood.

    And even granting the argument, I have to read the plays to know what is in them. Even in London, New York, or Paris, I would only be able to see a tiny fraction of the plays I want to know.

    Honestly, it is less of a puzzle to me why people do not read Shakesepeare, who is frequently performed, then why they do not read Jonson, Webster, Wycherley, Congreve, Racine, Euripides, Büchner, Molière, Calderón de la Barca, etc.


    • I still can’t see reading the plays as either a superior or an inferior or even a middling substitute – it’s simply a different kind of experience, that’s all. Some time ago, I heard conductor Roger Norrington say in an interview that in general, he preferred reading scores to listening to the music: presumably, that’s because he can hear the music in his head, the way he wants it to sound, when he is reading the scores. And, no doubt, he can pause while reading the scores to take in, in his own time, the delights of the counterpoint, or the harmony, or whatever – features that would pass by quickly in performance. His ability to do this, and the delight he obviously takes in this, does not of course invalidate performance; but equally, performance does not invalidate his delight in reading the scores, and I only wish I had the ability to do the same.

      And as you say, not to read plays is to close oneself off from some of the finest and most important of literature from all cultures, and from all times, and I really can’t see how anyone seriously interested in literature can afford to do that. There are all the great dramatists you mention, and more; but even if we were to consider novelists, it’s hard to understand how anyone keen on Gogol could bear to miss out on Government Inspector (or Marriage); or how an aficionado of Turgenev could be happy not knowing A Month in the Country.

      Cheers for now, Himadri


  4. Posted by Mark on April 24, 2015 at 4:17 pm

    Wholly agree, Himadri. The plays rattle by in performance and require reading alongside attending productions in order to appreciate them.

    Growing up in a bookless household, my introduction to Shakespeare was at school. The first play we read was Macbeth. We were subjected to an examination after every Act. My preparation for each exam, I remember, was to read the Act once a night the week before the exam, and then five times through the night before I sat the paper. I aced those exams – but more importantly I learned the pleasures of deep reading at an early age (13 or so).

    And Shakespeare – it should hardly need saying – is an eternal delight to read.


    • My first experience of Shakespeare was seeing King Lear in the 1971 Edinburgh Festival, aged 11. I was tremendously excited by what I had witnessed, and, for some reason, felt that I had to see hose words on the printed page. A Complete Works of Shakespeare soon followed, and I really can’t imagine being without those printed texts. Of course, I don’t think I took much of it in at 11, but obviously, whatever I took in was enough to inspire a deep love.

      As for macbeth, that’s one play I have yet to see in a good stage production. I’ve seen a few mediocre productions on stage, but for some reason, it seems a very difficult one to bring off. The DVD featuing the old RSC production with Judi Dench & Ian McKellen is just extraordinary: I’d have loved to have seen that live.


  5. I want to see the sonnets performed.

    I’m only half-kidding, but agree with all the above. Reading a play can offer neither a better nor worse experience than seeing one performed, but a different – and essential – one. How else would one get to experience gems in the writing that are not so apparent in the performance? A perfect example is, of course, Shakespeare’s own famous “[Exeunt, pursued by a Bear]” which has a qualitatively different humor as written than as performed. Or for a more contemporary example, without reading the play one would miss Albee’s marvelous direction in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: [Martha (braying)]: “I DON’T BRAY!”


    • But you can hear the sonnets performed! There are wonderful audio recordings by Simon callow, John Gielgud, Alex Jennings, and many others!

      I agree that it’s not a case of seeing and reading being in competition with each other – they’re just different, and each has riches to offer.

      There are some wonderful stage directions in printed versions of Shaw’s plays. Often, when characters enter, he would give detailed descriptions of them in teh stage directions, and they’r marvellously witty. I hadn’t known of the Edward Albee stage direction that you quote: I have to read the play now!

      cheers, Himadri


  6. I’ll second Scott. Reading and watching a play are two different experiences. I have seen plays that struck me as play-only works–not meant to be read–that were still very good drama. Shakespeare’s place at the top of the heap as a writer has to do with how extraordinary his works are as literature. His best plays are at least as gorgeous as his sonnets. They just happen to be written in a different form.

    I am guilty of repeating the old “meant to be seen” thing to my daughters when they were first introduced to Shakespeare in school. For little American girls, reading WS cold is just really, really hard. They have no foundation for understanding it. So I started NetFlixing and taking them to summer in the park performances. Seeing the plays performed not only made the stories and characters compelling for them, it illustrated for them how the language could make sense as it was written and made it feel familiar. In fact, I was surprised at our first outing (Much Ado) how easily my older daughter followed everything–despite our coming in late. Later, reading WS was far less difficult for both of them and the beauty of the writing was more accessible. When I told them it was meant to be seen, I never meant to discourage them from reading the plays. Just the opposite.

    I have not read as many of the plays as I would like to, yet I read three to five books at a time, most of them by dead people. The trouble is there are just so many of them and the living keep writing more. Then there are the ones I need to re-read, or re-re-read. Some people will never read a Shakespeare play because they’ve already gotten the Brownie badge for seeing it performed. Some after seeing a play will scratch it off their list as “done” because they feel they’ve gotten as much out of it as they care to (which may, to be fair, be quite a lot). Even those who enjoy seeing the plays may prefer to concentrate their limited reading time on other kinds of works. We all have to prioritize our reading somehow. (I still haven’t read Huckleberry Finn. Maybe next month.) I think the “not to be read” thing is basically a homework pass–a culturally acceptable excuse from hard work for otherwise good behavior. As you say, even well-read people whip out their Excused from Reading the Plays pass.

    Which is their loss. Usually, when I see one of the plays, some scene or another will send me to the text, and I will be stuck for an hour or more poring over the play, back and forth, eating it up. Good stuff.


    • reading a Shakespeare play is hard work for any child, I think: Shakespeare’s language is as remote from modern UK English as it is from modern US English, and performance is, I agree, the best introduction a child can have to how all this seemingly incomprehensible language comes together, and makes sense. But if one is to take an interest in literature, it does seem a bit of a shame not then to engage with the text, as it can, I think, provide certain kinds of experiences that even the best productions can’t. This is especially true in something such as, say, Troilus and Cressida, where the language is particularly knotty, but even in plays where the text is clearer, there are different layers of meaning and implication and connotation: this is poetry, after all! And I do often feel that this “meant to be seen not read” business is simply an “excuse from hard work”.

      I certainly don’t denigrate the experience of seeing the plays: theatre visits have provided some of my most memorable personal experiences. (The very day after our marriage, for instance, my wife and I saw Romeo and Juliet at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, with Niamh Cusack and Sean Bean: this was all of nearly 29 years ago now…) But equally, some of the finest productions are the ones that have gone on in my own head as I have reading them. You should have seen the production of Antony and Cleopatra that went on in my head the last time I read it: it brought the house down! 🙂

      Cheers, Himadri


  7. I LOVE watching plays and I have a subscription to one of the theatres in my city.

    Since a couple of years, I’ve started to read the play I’m seeing before going to the theatre (if I have the time) and I’ve found that I enjoyed the play a lot more like that. I’ve had time to get to know the characters, I can place them immediately. I can concentrate on the acting and the words instead of trying to tie up the knots of the plot in my head and memorise who is who.

    So, I totally agree with you: plays are meant to be read AND seen performed. (and preferably in that order…)

    PS : Everybody should read Molière. Just like everybody should read Shakespeare. You may leave Racine behind but Molière should be on every good reader’s TBR.


    • Hello Emma,
      I certainly wouldn’t want to leave Racine behind. Or Corneille. I read them (and Molière) in translation, but sometime read the French texts (from my wife’s shelves) just to get a feel for what they sound like.

      Many years ago, the BBC produced a version of L’Avare transplanted to a Scottish setting, with Harpagon, now a Scottish laird, played wonderfully by the Scottish comedian, the late and much missed Rikki Fulton. It was hilarious. I have also seen Tom Courtenay play L’Avare on stage, where, at the end of teh act, he personally went around teh stage putting out all teh stage lights.

      But yes – just as you cannot know English literature without having read Shakespeare how can you know French literature without reading Molière?

      Cheers, Himadri


  8. Posted by witwoud on April 25, 2015 at 12:33 am

    I like reading the plays aloud in the bath, doing all the voices myself. I’m convinced that is how they were meant to be performed. My housemates disagree, and say I should go to the theatre and let them use the bathroom.

    The problem is, I have an utter aversion to sitting in audiences. For one thing, the three people immediately behind me are always — I mean, ALWAYS,

    1) The lady with the bag of mints.
    2) The kid who uses the seat in front of him as a footrest
    3) The man with bronchitis who has come to the theatre to die.

    So I don’t bother with going to theatre any more, and watch Shakespeare at home on DVD. It may lack the immediacy of a live performance, but a comfortable armchair, a bottle of beer, some pistachios, and the chance to watch, say, Al Pacino as Shylock more than make up for it.


    • Ha ha ha!
      I too, I must admit, sometimes read these plays out loud. And as far as I am concerned, I sound just like Paul Scofield. (My family disagrees with me on this point…)

      I do enjoy seeing Shakespeare well performed in the theatre, though. It’s not a case of one or the other, obviously!

      Shakespeare also works very well on audio recordings, I find. I have been systematically downloading audio versions of Shakespeare plays on to my iPad – I think I have about 15 or so to go to get the full set of 37 (I might as well get Titus Andronicus and The Two Gentlemen of Verona to complete the set).

      cheers, Himadri
      PS I don’t know if you’ve seen the DVD of Olivier as Shylock. I am not too keen on Olivier’s Shakespeare films (Hamlet, henry V, Richard III), and have often wondered what teh fuss was about. But then I saw his Shylock in the Jonathan Miller production, and was quite overwhelmed. I can now see what the fuss was about.


      • Posted by witwoud on April 26, 2015 at 9:42 pm

        I’ve always been a bit underwhelmed by Olivier’s Shakespeare too. I do remember enjoying his Henry V at school when it was shown as an end-of-term treat — it was almost as good as The Dambusters, in my opinion — but watching it as an adult, it strikes me as rather stagey, as do his other Shakespeare performances. I’ll give the Merchant a try, though. Thanks for the tip.

  9. Hello Himadri,
    Great post on The Bard. I agree with you that he needs to be read (something I tell myself I will do again at some point) not only “watched” on stage.
    On his birthday I got a present (it was a special occasion), a beautiful small notebook decorated with his handwriting and this quote from Sir Thomas More:

    “Not one of you should live an aged man
    for other ruffians, as their fancies wrought
    with selfsame hand, self reasons, and self right
    would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
    would feed on one another.”

    And them I come and read this on your blog. What a wonderful coincidence!


    • Hello Delia,
      “Sir Thomas More” is a play that Shakespeare had, it s believed, a bit of a hand in writing, and although it is rarely included in his collected works, is worth a read. But all these plays are worth reading!
      All the best,


  10. I prefer to read Shakespeare. Indeed, I think that the language is, at times, so amazingly complex, that it couldn’t have been understood in a theatrical performance even by Elizabethans. You always hear actors saying that kids, in particular, should be shown Shakespeare performed on stage – but I think kids would only get the bare gist of what is being said, accompanied by a lot of emoting by actors. To truly understand the beauty of Shakespeare, and the subtlety of the words, Shakespeare should be appreciated in the theatre of the mind.


    • I don’t wish to decry the experience of seeing these plays performed, as I have been to great many theatrical productions that have been truly life-enhancing; and it is certainly true that a good performance is more involving for a child, or even perhaps for an adult newcomer to Shakespeare, than is the printed text. But I agree with you that to take in the poetic depth and complexity of the text, one ideally needs to read it: even in the best of productions, the language – inevitably – passes by too quickly for us to ponder on it,. And all too often, we get little more than the bare gist of what is said: even the primary meaning, let alone the various secondary meanings or undertones or connotations, can often be obscure. The theatre of the mind, as you put it, is a wonderful stage for putting on Shakespeare’s plays.


  11. Posted by alan on April 26, 2015 at 4:32 pm

    Slightly OT, but this extract from a piece about the experience of an Estonian immigrant, originally in The Guardian and repeated in The Week, might resonate with you:
    “When I first arrived in Oxford I was so excited. I was thrilled beyond belief. I couldn’t wait to meet those students with whom I’d have five-hour conversations about their rich literary heritage. Needless to say, it never happened…After about two years in the UK I learnt to keep quiet, and I no longer tried to talk to people about Shakespeare”


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