I wrote this rather grumpy short paper for a roundtable on “Pedagogical Shakespeare: Text, Performance, and Digitalization,” organized by Bradin Cormack and Elizabeth Harvey at this year’s MLA conference. It’s a position statement at best, expressing an unease and a dissatisfaction, but not offering any real solutions to what’s bugging me about the use of performance in the teaching of Shakespeare.

What does it mean to teach Shakespeare in or with performance?

I will start with a sweeping, rough thesis to express a fundamental concern: the fear that when we use performance — as something to participate in or something to witness — in order to teach Shakespeare, we almost necessarily sell short either “performance” or “Shakespeare,” and very likely both.

It seems to me that as an intellectual endeavor (rather than simply a pedagogical tool), using performance to get to Shakespeare needs to ignore the to me extremely persuasive view of scholars such as Bill Worthen or Andrew Hartley that performance and text are simply incommensurable – that to conceive of a performance as an interpretation or realization of a text is a profoundly limited and theoretically problematic approach. We can look for the text in a performance, of course, but in doing so we need to ignore most of what makes the performance a performance. By the same token, to speak of the text as determining performance, or as a texture of fixed and open moments, as a web of opportunities, and so on, relies on a particular notion of what acting is, and tends to measure the success or the level of interest of a performance in terms of how well or indifferently it responds to the chances and challenges offered by the text. In other words, this kind of approach assumes that although there are things in performance that are unpredictable, their very existence is predicated on openings for unpredictability created by the text: even in the unpredictable, we can find Shakespeare’s guiding hand. All paths lead back, from the theatre, to the author’s desk.

To my mind, and I realize this is not a consensus position, performances should be thought primarily as autonomous art works – theatrical events that among many other things do something with a text, but aren’t responsible to that text. They don’t rely on the text, they aren’t enabled by the text — they use the text to create something distinctly unlike the text. [An aside: conversely, the use of production shots in modern editions easily lends itself to talking about performance as supplementary – the text is the text, but performances can give a kind of theatrical variety to it that can be captured in still images; in other words, what staging does can be reduced to scenography. I don’t mean to suggest that that is the attitude implied every time an edition features a range of production shots, but as a teaching tool, it’s sometimes hard to see how it could produce any other way of talking about the relationship between text and performance.]

Teaching performances of Shakespeare is endlessly fascinating to me, but not because of their common reference point – teaching those performances in order to return to the text that gave occasion to them strikes me as reductive. [Another aside: I’d also say that often, performances that are deeply interesting as performances are nowhere near as compelling as readings of a play; Thomas Ostermeier’s Hamlet, for instance, is a great piece of theatre built around a brilliantly anarchic central performance by Lars Eidinger, and there is much to say about it – but it’s also a very simplistic and seriously uninteresting take on Shakespeare’s play.]

And teaching a single performance of a text runs the risk of positing exemplarity, as if there could be an ideal, or close-to-ideal theatrical or filmic version of any play. [Yet another aside: I think audio recordings are the worst culprit in this regard: you can let your imagination conjure up any manner of fantastic assembly of scenographic elements, but how the text sounds, or should sound, can be given concrete form. They also privilege the aural over the visual, and the actions of the mouth over those of the rest of the actor’s body in a way that is profoundly untrue to the theatre. Finally, in erasing the visible body and the wide range of choices its presence requires, audio recordings give the impression that students are learning something about performance but in fact allow voice actors and students to ignore the many points in Shakespeare’s plays where any actor, in any staged production, no matter how conservative in its approach, will have to come up with something the text does not give her. Audio recordings thus give the text a power and authority it does not actually have in the theatre.]

And finally, and I say this as theatre scholar and practitioner, no matter how much a particular performance may do with and to a role or a play, it seems obvious to me that no performance of Shakespeare’s plays in particular could ever not lose more of Shakespeare than it can reveal or bring out. The kind of close textual engagement that reading allows is simply not available in performance: even the most hardcore Shakespeare-in-performance scholars must surely admit that reading the texts makes for a more complex, more involved, ultimately more challenging literary experience.

So what is there to do? I do think performance has an important place in the Shakespearean classroom in a number of ways, but most of them aren’t about Shakespeare. There is the fundamental challenge that many of our students don’t have much, if any, experience of going to the theatre anymore. And while I think it’s perfectly possible and legitimate to teach Shakespeare as literature, it seems a bit of a shame to completely ignore the mode of transmission and reception for which the plays were written. So, if nothing else, I think exposing students to live performance sketches in a bit of a blank. Engaging students in scene work is also, I think, a worthwhile exercise, but to me at least that is because it gives them a sense of what they can do with the plays – just how much freedom there is in the theatre, or should be, in turning lines on a page into live action between real bodies. To then translate that experience into a statement about Shakespeare and the freedom his plays give actors seems wrongheaded to me – it’s a freedom one takes, not a freedom one is granted.

Finally, I do think theatre history has a role to play in all this. One of my favourite exercises is working with actors’ parts, in particular parts from The Merchant of Venice. It’s a way of giving students an idea of how these plays were built, of how their dramaturgy works, of their theatrical undergirdings that aren’t normally visible in reading a play, and that generally aren’t perceived by literary modes of reading either. Watching students run the scene with Antonio, Shylock, and the Jailor and seeing them realize what all of Shylock’s false cues do to the other characters on stage is thrilling. That said, it works as a theatre-historical pedagogical exercise – but it is, to my mind, a terrible recipe for exciting, surprising new performances. [Last aside: having been called out on this in the Q&A, I will also freely concede that this is indeed an exercise that suggests that parts and cues had a power they likely did not actually have – Shylock’s constant false cues aren’t exemplary, but exceptional, and the way these parts deliberately mis-cue performance is unusual, if extremely striking.] Actors’ parts may [sometimes] structure a performance in what is on occasion an almost dictatorial fashion – but in a modern performance, I would expect actors and directors to rebel against the text in these cases. So here, again, what may be pedagogically expedient does not necessarily lead to an intellectually rigorous and aesthetically rich understanding of the relationship between text and performance.

[And that was that.]

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2 Responses to Using Performance in Teaching Shakespeare

  1. Gerard Lee says:

    As an actor and director who has directed Shakespeare with young performing arts students who have had little previous exposure to the plays, or worse, negative exposure, I’m relieved to hear your thoughts. It seems to me that the text is an aid to the actor, but the vitality in performance comes from minting it anew, and always finding cheeky connections for the young performer to hitch their wagon to. Thanks!

  2. Bill says:

    This post reminds me of meeting George Fox, a Canadian composer. He showed the score to a symphony he had written. It had won a prize in Europe but, he told me wistfully, had never been performed. It seemed to me that he would have preferred to hear it played than have it win an award based solely on analysis.

    Surely, the artist’s intentions should have some sway. Clearly, Shakespeare intended the plays to be performed, so shouldn’t students catch at least a glimpse of the words lifted off the page?

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