Why Study Shakespeare?

For the month of March, RLT has been delving into four of Shakespeare’s histories (Henry VI parts 1-3 and Richard III) as we investigate the character of Queen Margaret of Anjou and develop our new play following her life.  Some of us at RLT have loved Shakespeare for decades; others are relatively new to the Bard’s work. That led us to ask the question, why should we study Shakespeare?

This question is certainly well known to anyone who has been forced to read Romeo and Juliet for an English class.  The language is confusing, the puns don’t make sense, and you’ve heard the story a million times elsewhere.  Is this required reading just a mindless, meritless attachment to the classics? As a student, I’ve certainly felt that way from time to time.  But I can’t overstate how, as an artist, I’ve found a deep, meaningful connection with these words written so long ago.  To me, the answer is clear: of course we should study Shakespeare.  Let me share with you a few of the reasons why I believe this.

Shakespeare’s work teaches us the power of words. What other author can boast inventing over 1700 words and phrases that we use every day? Shakespeare shows us that language is evolving, not stagnant, and a tool, not an obstacle.  I challenge anyone to read Shakespeare and not fall in love with the individual words, even if you can’t make sense of the narrative.  

Shakespeare’s plays are among the most performative texts.  The words demand to be spoken, and they actually show the actor how to say them right.  By following iambic pentameter, alliteration, and other rhetorical devices, Shakespeare’s words indicate which words should be stressed, when to pause, and how to feel as you’re saying them.  He gives his actors consonants to spit in rage, and long, descriptive paragraphs to put the actor in the exact right emotional state. Like any good artist, Shakespeare knew when to break his own rules, and sometimes violated iambic pentameter in order to shock the audience and the actors at the right moment.  Shakespeare understood that a play is not a novel, it is a performance and requires specific techniques in order to deliver its full power, which is something contemporary playwrights can still learn from.

Shakespeare’s stories and characters are timeless.  In RLT’s first production, The Tragedy of Othello, we brought this classic story into the modern day and set it in the United States military.  During this process, all of us were shocked to see how well the same themes Shakespeare was writing about then applied to our lives today. Of course, variants of Shakespeare’s stories and characters have appeared since then, maybe in more readily relatable ways.  But I don’t think this should mean that we ignore Shakespeare’s version. We need different perspectives on the same issues, and Shakespeare’s ideas might be very different from those of a modern writer, but both are valid in our quest to answer these universal questions.  Having these common stories that people can update and adapt enables artists around the world to have a conversation with each other spanning decades.  This couldn’t be done with a modern play, because the human race hasn’t had enough time to sit with them, think about them, and react to them. His plays are multilayered and complex, which allows you to come back to the same stories over and over, finding new discoveries each time.

I’m so excited that RLT has decided to pursue this innovative project about the life of Margaret, one of Shakespeare’s best-written female characters.  We’ll keep you posted on how the process goes!

Lucy Gouvin
RLT Founding Member