Having avoided Shakespeare since secondary school, I was both terrified and rusty when I arrived for this Everybody’s Reading event.
At the beginning of her talk, Julia Pritchard assured us that we are already familiar with Shakespeare’s writing by pointing out that many phrases from his work that are still in common use today. ‘It’s Greek to me’, ‘a fool’s paradise’, and ‘the long and the short of it’ are a few examples. We were also reminded that Shakespeare’s plays continue to be relevant today because they deal with universal themes, and include the ever-appealing elements of magic, sex, and violence.
The next step in our gentle introduction to was to learn a little about the theatre. In Shakespeare’s day theatres were not considered respectable places and so were situated outside of the City of London along with bull-baiting arenas and brothels. Day-time performances, standing audiences, the lack of toilets, and the sale of fruit and ale made the theatre a noisy and foul-smelling place. Perhaps it’s just as well that both The Globe and The Rose theatres were open-air!
Moving on to his plays, those new to Shakespeare were advised to start by a reading a summary and perhaps watching a film or stage version before reading one act of a play at a time. Books with the playscript and explanatory notes on opposite pages are particularly helpful.
We read the original prologue to Romeo and Juliet along with a modern version, and this provided a brief outline of the play, the characters and the setting. Although the play is set in Verona, there is no evidence that Shakespeare travelled to Italy. During such a turbulent period of history, it was less controversial, and safer, for writers to set their plays in the past or overseas.
We then watched two very different versions of the opening scene: the 1968 film directed by Franco Zeffirelli, and the 1996 interpretation set in contemporary America with Leonardo DiCaprio cast as Romeo. I expected to prefer the 1996 version but, based on the scene we watched, the earlier film was more appealing. I think that means I’m a little less terrified now!
About the reviewer
Karen Powell is studying for a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. Her poetry has been published in various anthologies and magazines including Welcome to Leicester: poems about the city, The Interpreter’s House and Silver Birch Press.