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Home :: Archive :: 1999 :: January ::
Re: Beginning Shakespeare Student
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 10.0100  Wednesday, 20 January 1999.

[1]     From:   M. W. McRae <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 19 Jan 1999 08:21:33 -0600
        Subj:   Re: SHK 10.0094 Beginning Shakespeare Student Needs Help

[2]     From:   Charles Costello <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 19 Jan 1999 09:59:39 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 10.0094 Beginning Shakespeare Student Needs Help

[3]     From:   Larry Weiss <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 19 Jan 1999 15:24:34 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 10.0094 Beginning Shakespeare Student Needs Help

[4]     From:   Tom Mueller <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 19 Jan 1999 16:33:39 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 10.0094 Beginning Shakespeare Student Needs Help

[5]     From:   Bruce Fenton <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 19 Jan 1999 23:47:23 EST
        Subj:   Re: SHK 10.0094 Beginning Shakespeare Student Needs Help


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           M. W. McRae <
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Date:           Tuesday, 19 Jan 1999 08:21:33 -0600
Subject: 10.0094 Beginning Shakespeare Student Needs Help
Comment:        Re: SHK 10.0094 Beginning Shakespeare Student Needs Help

Always ask yourself why you come to the conclusions about Shakespeare
that you do, and then explore your answers with others.  If, for
example, you think Hamlet indecisive because he is too speculative, ask
yourself whether intense speculation engenders indecisiveness.  Since
most preliminary claims about texts can be expressed as "X is y because
z," the important task is to determine the legitimacy of z.  It's on
these contextual issues that most published scholarship turns, but the
scholarship makes little sense until you recognize your own interpretive
contexts.

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Charles Costello <
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Date:           Tuesday, 19 Jan 1999 09:59:39 -0500 (EST)
Subject: 10.0094 Beginning Shakespeare Student Needs Help
Comment:        Re: SHK 10.0094 Beginning Shakespeare Student Needs Help

Dear Heather,

In order to get at a theme of a particular play, I suggest you read for
patterns: recurring words, ideas, images, situations, objects, animals,
colours, emotions, relationships, timeframes, etc.  The list is
endless.  Make notes as you go. When you have found what seems to be an
important pattern try to understand what it is doing for that play.
Note how the pattern might vary.  This will take some thought, but there
is a great payoff when you realize that you have discovered for yourself
some thing, even a little thing, that Shakespeare has worked into his
play.  When you have come to some kind of understanding, write about it
in as much detail as possible.  At this point in your career, I wouldn't
worry so much about what others have written about the play.  The main
thing is to develop your own analytical skills.

To find the patterns, you have to read very closely and patiently.  As
an undergrad I would read a play by Shakespeare many times as I wrote a
paper on it.  I read The Tempest ten times for one paper.  Given how
hard it was to get through the language just for basic meaning, it was
the only way the more interesting patterns would start to appear.

As you go, you may want to keep in mind a sense of the effects of the
play in performance.  The patterns of a play one sees in the text on a
page may be changed-enhanced, clarified, etc-when that play is presented
by means of the bodies and voices of live actors costumed and
positioning themselves across the performance space. The fact that these
actors are performing before a live audience is often acknowledged to
one degree or another in a play, so test your patterns against what you
can imagine of the whole theatrical event-the personal encounter between
live actors and a live audience.

The patterns you find will not necessarily be any more significant in
the performance or the theatrical event than they are already in the
text.  There is a good chance they will be, though, because the
performance is what the play is meant for.  So, if you find a pattern in
the text it's worth the effort to consider what might be happening to it
in the performance.

Good luck,
Chuck Costello
Graduate Centre for Study of Drama,
University of Toronto

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Larry Weiss <
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Date:           Tuesday, 19 Jan 1999 15:24:34 -0500
Subject: 10.0094 Beginning Shakespeare Student Needs Help
Comment:        Re: SHK 10.0094 Beginning Shakespeare Student Needs Help

Dear Heather,

Since the moderator of this List usually does not pass along posts from
students seeking help, he must have found something special in your
message, such as a well-written expression of a sincere desire to teach
yourself.  I agree with him.

In your case, you may be better off teaching yourself than relying on a
professor who urges you to pay particular attention to the "prose
verses."  There are no such things.  A passage is either prose or verse;
it can't be both.  How do you tell the difference?  Easy.  If all the
lines start with capital letters regardless of whether they are the
beginning of a sentence, it is verse; otherwise, it is prose.

But I would urge you as a beginner to ignore the difference between
prose and verse.  It is true that Shakespeare's choice of one or the
other sometimes helps us to derive his meaning, and the verse can also
be a aid in interpretation.  But to begin an analysis with those
subtleties is a little like trying to appreciate the design of a table
by studying the veneer.  It adds to the overall impression, but it is
better to first find out what the table is made from and how it is put
together.

To a beginner the verse is a distraction.  After you have learned the
general meaning of what a passage says you can go back to see what
additional nuances you find by observing the verse.  At first, it is
better to read the speeches in the plays as sentences.  See where the
punctuation is, and read the lines as you would read anything else.  (It
may be true that Shakespeare himself did not insert the punctuation
marks, but that is something else you can ignore until you feel
qualified to be as much of a nit-picker as everyone else on this List.)

Also, get yourself an edition of the plays you are reading that has good
footnotes located in a convenient place-you don't want to constantly
turn to the glossary in the back of the book to find definitions.  The
Folger series is good for this, with footnotes on facing pages.  If you
are looking for a complete works, the Riverside (footnotes at the bottom
of each column) is pretty good.  Of course, the footnotes are not always
correct, but they are likely to be more right than you are, at least
until you have studied the plays for a while.

Everyone has a study approach which works best for her, but you might
find this one helpful:  First read the entirety of a character's speech
without consulting the footnotes.  Then look at the footnotes applicable
to that speech, and then re-read the speech in light of what you have
learned from the footnotes.  (Do this even where you think you can tell
the meaning without help, as some of the words Shakespeare used have
changed their meanings.  For example, when a character in Shakespeare
says he is "still watching" he means that he is always awake, which is
not the meaning we give the words when we see them today.)  By this time
you should have a fairly good idea of what the character is saying.
When you have finished reading a scene this way (which actually involves
reading all the words twice), you should go back and re-read the entire
scene without interruption.  This should give you a pretty good idea not
only of what the characters say, but what it all means in the dramatic
context.

Finally, if you have a study buddy to bounce ideas off, you can meet
with her once a week or so to discuss what your conclusions.  You may be
surprised to find that there is no single "answer" to any serious
question of interpretation.  That is why this List exists.

Above all, Have Fun.
Larry Weiss

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Tom Mueller <
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Date:           Tuesday, 19 Jan 1999 16:33:39 -0500 (EST)
Subject: 10.0094 Beginning Shakespeare Student Needs Help
Comment:        Re: SHK 10.0094 Beginning Shakespeare Student Needs Help

>My professor
>mentioned poetry and prose and said we should pay very close attention
>to prose verses.  How do I distinguish the two?

The way I remembered to distinguish the two was simple, if a paradox.
Verse ("poetry"?) has prosody, which is the study of the metrical
structure of verse. Prose does not.

Tom Mueller

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[5]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Bruce Fenton <
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Date:           Tuesday, 19 Jan 1999 23:47:23 EST
Subject: 10.0094 Beginning Shakespeare Student Needs Help
Comment:        Re: SHK 10.0094 Beginning Shakespeare Student Needs Help

Some may have other ideas but I recommend the following:

I am far from a scholar but I am someone who has received a great deal
of enjoyment from Shakespeare and I hope you can get the same

1) First of all have fun, relax, enjoy the human drama and the words-
you don't need to understand every word nor analyze each action.

2) See as many plays in person as possible.  It might make sense to look
at an outline of the play before you go, this will make it easier to
follow the general story so you can enjoy the general story more without
worrying about what is going on.

3) If it's not possible to see the plays you might like some of the
movies- Kenneth Branah's Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Othello and
Hamlet are good - the last two have some stars you will recognize.
There is also the 1996 Romeo and Juliet (I think Baz Lurman is the
director-I'm sure I butchered his name) but it stars Leonardo Decaprio
and Claire Danes and the Hamlet starring Mel Gibson.  Your local library
should also have some titles such as the BBC series.  If you like older
movies the ones with Lawrence Oliver are also great.

4) If any speeches or passages from the plays or films you see catch
your eye as particularly interesting go back to the written play and
reread it.  You can then try to further understand the meaning of the
words.  Once you have a grasp you might try reading them aloud - acting
as if you would in the same situation as the character.

5) I mentioned a book in my last post called The Friendly Shakespeare by
Norrie Epstein I recommend this (I think this is the third time I've
mentioned it here but I promise I'm not on the publisher's payroll).
You might also want to go to a large bookstore and look in the
Shakespeare section and see what grabs your attention.

6) I also like Looking for Richard - Al Pacino's documentary about the
play Richard III and the reasons he and other actors enjoy it.  You
might also have fun with Shakespeare in Love - it might not help you
understand the plays better but it is entertaining and fun and might get
you into the right mood to learn more.

7) Sit back and enjoy the movies and plays as you would any other and
relax.

Shakespeare is not rocket science.  True, it can be analyzed to no end
but its primary purpose is to entertain.  So have fun and enjoy the
show.  I hope you get the enjoyment from it that I do.

-Bruce
 

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