(Emma Smith’s article appeared in the Guardian, 4/1.)
With theatres closed, now is the time to find pleasure in Shakespeare’s texts. His first fans used them for chat-up lines – and read the plays without the baggage of Bardolatry
That Shakespeare wrote for the theatre and that his plays should be enjoyed on the stage not the page has become the standard rallying cry of directors, teachers and academics. “I don’t think people should bother to read Shakespeare. They should see him in the theatre,” Sir Ian McKellen advised in 2015. And if actors bring Shakespeare to life, according to Royal Shakespeare Company director Greg Doran, the benefits are mutual: advocating a “Shakespeare gym” earlier this year, Doran suggested that without proper opportunity to perform Shakespeare, the craft of acting itself could “diminish or get lost”.
But this is a modern perspective. Powerful advocates for Shakespeare in the past were less convinced by the medium of theatre. Samuel Johnson, the great 18th-century lexicographer and editor of the plays, felt that while comedy was often better experienced in the theatre, tragedy rarely was. Charles Lamb, who with his sister Mary wrote the popular children’s Tales from Shakespeare, suggested that “the plays of Shakespeare are less calculated for performance on a stage than those of almost any other dramatist whatever”. When we watch King Lear, he suggested, we see merely the mundanely pitiful “old man tottering about the stage with a walking-stick”, but when “we read it, we see not Lear but we are Lear”. Deep engagement with the plays meant private study, not public spectacle.