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A Shakespearean Quiddit

January 2010

I’ve been trying to understand why the amount on the bill I receive from my telecommunications provider is different each month. There are no extra charges incurred by me, but the amount is always a few dollars different. So I read the company’s service agreement. I understood the words, but the overall meaning escaped me. It made me irreverently receptive to the company’s message. I’ve been in this dance hall before but for an entirely opposite reason, and it’s William Shakespeare’s fault. Alfred Harbage calls it “reverently unreceptive,” the way people respond to the dialogue in Shakespeare’s plays. I’ve tried since childhood, but I’ve never been able to sit through a whole performance because while I knew what was happening, the words were just too wearisome.  I was first blamed for not working hard enough to listen and later mocked for not being smart enough to understand. Now I know I’m not alone. While Shakespeare’s works are timeless and profound, they are speaking to fewer and fewer people. And that’s not good.  Nope. His stories may not need words to be understood, but it’s so easy to miss the acuity of: “Laertes, if you want to believe these lies, then that’s your destiny. But please, don’t treat me like I’m an imbecile” when it comes out as Laertes, you do but daily I pray you, pass with your best violence. I am afraid you make a wanton of me” in Hamlet’s Act 5.  I don’t buy the reasoning of our culture’s dumbing down or its short attention span for this miscommunication. The vocabulary and sentence structure just don’t fit ears anymore, especially because many of the words he wrote 400 years ago no longer have the same meaning and may not even exist. This complaint isn’t new; it’s been going on for at least 100 years, but it would have been sacrilege in the English language before now to suggest an update.  I know this opens the door for me to be called a loose cannon, but there’s a reason that those under 30 won’t sit through three hours of stilted words and those older are experiencing poetry rather than a play. A professor at California State University started The Shakespeare Translation Project  but the “syntactical complexity” he has tried to retain is almost as stilted as the original. Of course there’s always Sparknotes’ No Fear Shakespeare  with its colloquial translations, but constantly referencing a book during a stage performance ruins the plot synchronization. The goal of Shakespeare is to help people understand universal messages of love, hate, deception, humour and honour. But where’s the entertainment factor when one’s brain is constantly going Huh?? It must be time for a Shakespeare refit, something that moves Shakespeare’s language out of the way of the play’s message. A Company of Fools has been trying to do that here in Ottawa for 20 years.  They are reverently receptive to the originals, but are also loose cannons in the liberties they take with their styles. I don’t remember a clown in Hamlet, but the Fools seem to think it works, and have given all the major characters red noses and rosy cheeks in their version called Shakespeare’s Danish Play, which opened at The Gladstone last night and continues until Feb 27. This

A clown in Hamlet?

production will be more physical than the Fools’ normal buffoonery because Andy Massingham is in the director’s chair. Long ago Massingham did the Bard at Stratford then vaulted into physical theatre because he loves to see space between an actor’s feet and the stage. He’s now made Ottawa his home and recently opened Guerilla Heart Juice, a physical-theatre school on Rideau Street, feeling the city is right on the cusp of accepting arts into its mainstream.

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