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  • Writer's pictureViolet Mackintosh

Page and Stage

A brief exploration into whether we should study or stage plays

(focusing mainly on Shakespeare)

I dug out my old EPQ dissertation the other day and thought I might share a small snippet with you guys. My actual question was: Should we stage plays in order to fulfil my artistic potential? I wasn't going to post this one but it turns out that everyone has lots of time on their hands at the moment for a long read! Let me know your thoughts: Do you prefer to watch and then read, or the other way around? Or never read plays? Or even, never watch?

“Can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France?” asks Shakespeare of the audience in the prologue of Henry V. He seems almost to apologise for the unrealistic nature of the performance to follow, by raising theatre’s fundamental challenge of how to invoke the boundless images in the language within the confined space of its walls. The answer would appear to be a resounding “Yes!” from modern audiences, as Sam Wanamaker’s replica Globe continues to sell out every day, just as the original venue did in 1599. This being said, Shakespearean scholars continue to argue that more enjoyment can be drawn from untangling the words on the page than someone interpreting them for you on a stage. It all comes down to the very nature of performance, how much we can rely on the audience's imagination? In modern times it is getting harder, as the competition with film is perhaps creating a lazy breed of audience who expect reality. However, film has been around for over a hundred years now, so if audiences are to be perceived as lazy it is hard to blame cinema alone for this. Innovations such as immersive theatre may be seen as a dialectic response to the

film-maker’s perception of reality and might not fit into our conventional idea of watching a play in the theatre, but if immersive theatre isn’t a play then what else is it?

Two important questions spring to mind when thinking of whether to stage or read plays: firstly, whether the language of the text facilitates or leads the action through the story, and secondly whether the writer’s intentions play a part. For instance, would Shakespeare, if he could have foreseen the extent to which his plays were studied, have written them differently? Notably, at the front of every Penguin Shakespeare edition is the quote “Though his plays have much to offer the readers, they exist fully only in performance”.[1] This struck me as a permanent reminder to the reader that they are reading only the “instruction manual”[2] and not the fully-fledged masterpiece. It would appear that audience members - myself included - often read the text to find out what they missed or what was cut from the production they have just seen. Although Sir Ian McKellen certainly wouldn't agree, as his opinion is that “reading Shakespeare is a waste of time”.[3]

Many might argue that one of the reasons Shakespeare’s work has been so popular is because it is capable of being reinterpreted to make it appealing and relevant to a contemporary audience, as “why would you want to do Hamlet if you don’t have something new to bring to it?”[5]. Some of the other reasons for the durability of Shakespeare’s work are that the words, sentiments and human condition are universal. However, if the reason for the longevity of writers such as Shakespeare is indeed reinterpretation in staging, then this is one of the strongest arguments for the benefits of bringing a text to life. On the other hand, when reading, nothing has been excluded or added without the reader’s knowledge and we are left with the ‘pure text’. (See discussion of 'pure texts' in my post about translation) With this we can hold more than one interpretation in mind without having to make any definite choices, arguably a distinct positive.

Back in Elizabethan England, staging a play was the only way to experience dramas. Printed texts were scarce and expensive, and many of the spectators were illiterate, so the playhouse was their only opportunity to have access to such exquisite language. The playhouse was an escape from the hardships of mundane life, and the audience even responded “to the appearance and personalities of the actors, as well as to the words they speak and the stories they tell”[7] for extra entertainment, much as we do with celebrities today. Many of the same people ended up coming again to the same theatre and even to the same play, so that they often knew the lines. Not, though, in the scholarly way that Winston Churchill did when he brought a script to every Shakespeare performance and began tutting loudly when a line was missed or cut (much to the frustration of his fellow theatre-goers). This may have been the best way to make sure that the academic loyalty to Shakespeare was maintained, but was this the way to get the best out of being part of an audience experiencing a live performance? It could be argued that Churchill’s appreciation as a reader impaired his appreciation as a spectator.

The crowds didn’t flock to the Globe for reality, they came for fantasy and to see a path along which their lives would never lead them. This is made clear by Shakespeare himself, during the prologue of Henry V, where he instructs his audience to use their imagination to set the scene: “And let us, ciphers to this great account, On your imaginary forces work.”[9] And to “piece out our imperfections with your thoughts.” Here, Shakespeare asks his audience to do some of the work themselves, a request that has arguably been diminished by the role of the modern day director. What is the difference between players appealing to the imagination of their audience, and writers appealing to the imagination of their readers? Today the latter is explored more than the former, as readers are required to interpret the text themselves, whereas in theatre a director sees it as his or her job to undertake this task. From this we could argue that staging and reading might not be altogether that different.

Therefore, whether you read or watch perhaps depends on how much work you want to do yourself to fill in gaps, and how much your appreciation relies upon your personal input. Sir Peter Hall commented that “if the audience doesn’t understand, it is the actor, not Shakespeare who is likely to be at fault.”[10] One doesn’t receive this help in comprehending while reading and there is likely to be a “language barrier that reduces this enjoyment”[11] if careful attention to the text is not observed. A consequence of the Elizabethans having a more aural than literary culture would have been that “status and vitality had to be expressed in colour and style”, as well as through the basic verbal communication between the characters and from actors to audience. This is experienced in staging, not reading, whether through costumes, set or performance style.

Writers of the era of printing and publishing may well have had reading intentions for their plays, but Shakespeare is unlikely to have considered this as an option. He was commissioned to write them for the stage, full stop. He wrote as many as he needed in order to earn money and to keep his plays in rep. To this end it has been argued that if Shakespeare had come before the innovation of permanent theatres (the first was built by Richard Burbage in 1576) he wouldn’t have written so many plays. This is due to the fact that a travelling company would have performed to a different audience each night. That they were not writing these plays in order to be published is apparent from the very few stage directions. Shakespeare didn’t need to explain his intentions on paper – he could communicate them directly to the actors who could then demonstrate them to the audience. Published Shakespeare wasn’t available until the 17th century, and even then it was in large, far from user-friendly folios. In the sixteenth century “plays were commissioned and written rapidly”[12] and Shakespeare was not an exception. This meant that compiling his complete works into these folios was an immense challenge, as he wrote them in parts each with one character’s lines and cues, along with a prompt copy for alterations and notes. They were, in every sense, working copies which shows that the concept of reading a script from start to finish was the last thing on the mind of the genius.

Although we are pretty certain of Shakespeare’s performance intentions for his work, this doesn’t stop the text lending itself rather well to being read. There must be a reason why the majority of students have studied a Shakespeare play, even if they haven’t seen one. A motive for this might be because the “specific locations within the story of a play are told through language rather than scenery”[13]. This means that the description of the scene is not located in the stage directions, of which there are few in Shakespeare, but in the text and therefore the reader will find it easier to picture the setting in their imagination.

The plays do unquestionably make good reading, and the ability to go at one’s own pace and understand every word sounds very appealing. Charles Lamb summed up the argument for reading particularly poignantly in 1811 when he said “King Lear is diminished by the stage because what the audiences see is bound to be inferior to what the play’s sublime poetry makes the reader imagine. In the theatre we see only what is painful and disgusting… however while we read it we see not Lear but we are Lear.”[15] But perhaps “painful and disgusting” is exactly the point, and the sublime poetry is meant to pepper the horror of human nature rather than dwell on it.

We will never be able to decide between page and stage. It is simply not possible to declare that every play’s script should be banned from bookshops, or every theatre closed down. My personal opinion is that the most important element is how involved the receiver wishes to be in the creative process. How much of the picture does the receiver want painted for them? Do they prefer a paintbrush and a blank canvas, a paint-by-numbers system or a complete work of art? For if the recipient wants to be involved in the creative process, this enriches the experience for them, whereas someone more passive would be liable to dislike ambiguity.

What are your thoughts? Do you prefer to watch and then read, or the other way around? Or never read plays? Or even, never watch?


[1] Stanley Wells, Editor of Penguin Shakespeare series [2] Lawson, M. (2015). Should some plays be seen and not read? [online] The Guardian [3] P. Foster, Telegraph, Don’t Bother reading Shakespeare, 2015 [4] Siddall, S. (2008). Shakespeare on Stage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [5] Issacson, D.(2018) Interview. Do you think plays should be read or staged? [6] Siddall, S. (2008). Shakespeare on Stage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press [7] Siddall, S. (2008). Shakespeare on Stage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [8] Shakespeare, W. and Taylor, G. (2008). Henry V. Oxford: Oxford University Press [9] Siddall, S. (2008). Shakespeare on Stage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press [10] Siddall, S. (2008). Shakespeare on Stage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [11] Siddall, S. (2008). Shakespeare on Stage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [12] Siddall, S. (2008). Shakespeare on Stage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [13] Siddall, S. (2008). Shakespeare on Stage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [14] Siddall, S. (2008). Shakespeare on Stage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press


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