Saturday, October 12, 2013

All the world's a stage for Shakespeare, but we no longer understand him by John Sutherland

Nicholas Hytner, director of the National Theatre, has admitted what most of us know but are too proud to say. Shakespeare on stage can be confusing. It's something that exercised one of our cleverest critics,Frank Kermode. And he was part of a tradition of critics – Samuel JohnsonSamuel Taylor ColeridgeAC Bradley – who believed that full understanding could only be achieved via the page, not the stage. Kermode published his last major work, Shakespeare's Language, in 2000, 10 years before his death.
A lot of Shakespeare, he said, was difficult to the point of verging on incomprehensibility. At least, when one encountered the stuff fresh through the ear in the theatre. You could usually tease out the meaning if you had studied the text beforehand. But if you were exposed for the first time to those lines in the theatre even the sharpest mind floundered.
It wasn't that Shakespeare was writing gobbledygook but that in his last years he had effectively left stage-language behind and was writing difficult poetry: something that could only, comprehensibly, be read.

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