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Appreciating the Density of Shakespeare in Real Time
March 13, 2014 11:39 AM   Subscribe

Shakespeare's plays are so densely rich and full of deep philosophy and wordplay (e.g. throwaway allusions which open - and, a line or two later, shut - huge worlds of insightful ideas) that I find it quite impossible to parse (much less absorb) all of what's being said and alluded to in real-time. And this is leaving completely aside the issues of outdated references and obsolete language. So: is it that people back then had nimbler minds, capable of absorbing densely-packed language in real time by rapidly spieling actors? Or.......?

Even if his plays were transposed to thoroughly modern English, with references also updated, most of Shakespeare's writing would be too dense, rich, and deep for me to properly enjoy at a theatrical pace. Whenever I see one of his plays for the first time, I feel like someone way smarter than me is firing thoughts and insights at me, rapid-fire, and I'm able only to follow the larger arc of what was being said, ignoring the vast majority of the details, metaphors, puns, and allusions because there's no time to wrap my mind around everything. I can't process it all on the fly.

Is it that:

1. People back then had were swifter-minded; able to parse and appreciate deep density at fast pace? Or...

2. People back then were no better, but caught each play multiple times to fully parse out the insight and cleverness? Or...

3. Most back then weren't hip to the subtleties; they just coasted along the outline of the plot, catching errant nuggets here and there, and the deeper stuff was admired only by those who took the time to really study the plays? Or...

4. It's just me; most people, even today, actually do parse it all out on the fly? Or...

5. Other scenarios I haven't thought of?
posted by Quisp Lover to Media & Arts (26 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Forgot to add....

And was it just Shakespeare? Or was this how many dramatists wrote in those days - i.e. densely rococo?

Was this how people actually spoke to each other? Could you strew your language with all sorts of asides and allusions and puzzle-ish constructions, and actually have people follow you? These days, if you don't speak in short, simple, terse-to-the-bone sentences, most people's eyes glaze and their hands reach for their iJizz. An adjective is the most decoration/embellishment one can get away with.
posted by Quisp Lover at 11:43 AM on March 13 [1 favorite]

As per my former teachers, the most plausible answer is 3: remember that the plays were enjoyed by mass audiences, from wildly varying seating had mixtures of lowbrow and highbrow references so that there was essentially something for everybody.
posted by StrikeTheViol at 11:47 AM on March 13 [3 favorites]

These days, if you don't speak in short, simple, terse-to-the-bone sentences, most people's eyes glaze and their hands reach for their iJizz. An adjective is the most decoration/embellishment one can get away with.

Citation needed on that front.

In any case, some things to keep in mind:

-Education system was different. Educated people would have more knowledge of Greek/Roman mythology, Biblical things, etc. So they would be more likely to pick up on allusions just by virtue of being in a different world.

-People would have somewhat more experience picking up on things aurally. Books were rarer; you'd be more likely to hear something read aloud than to read it; reading a book was a group experience, not an individual experience.

-The language was different back then. We have an added barrier of language that those listening would not. Studies have shown that code-switching between different varieties of English slows down other mental processes (If you speak a non-standard dialect, and I give you a math word problem in the standard dialect, you're going to do worse). So when reading Shakespeare, you have an added layer of difficulty that those listening in those day and age would not.

Overall, it was probably a bit of #3- after all, even today, people enjoy films and books at different levels- but keep in mind that you have a cultural and linguistic gap to fill that the people watching in Shakespeare's day did not.
posted by damayanti at 11:50 AM on March 13 [6 favorites]

I think there's probably a little of all of the reason you posit going on, but I'd compare it to something like the movie Airplane!, really. I guarantee you as a modern human there are jokes you missed in Airplane. But I also think you understood it about 900 times better the first time you saw it than Shakespeare would if you teleported him into a movie theater, circa 1980, because you are thoroughly soaked in all of the cultural references and trends and experiences that it's building on for its humor. Just think of all the background knowledge you have to have about California culture of the 1970s, the fashion for Eastern mysticism and spiritualism, air travel, and stereotypes from military movies about rock-jawed leaders of men to get what's so funny about Robert Stack decking a Hare Krishna as he walks through the concourse.

I'm not saying that the Zemeckis brothers are Shakes's peers. Just that it's a lot easier to pick up on double meanings, on riffs and playfulness and implication, when the surface or apparent meaning is understood so intuitively as to almost be thoughtless. Even if the double meanings are coming at you at speed.
posted by Diablevert at 11:51 AM on March 13 [30 favorites]

A lot of Shakespeare's audience was illiterate. All kinds of stuff was going on in the audience. Guys selling blood oranges, hooting and hollering. So a day at the theater was more than absorbing the words of the immortal bard, it was more like going to a ball game. Lots to see and enjoy.

There were different strata within the theater. Nobles and wealthier folks, the presumably more educated, would sit on seats, where anyone could pay a penny and be a groundling in the pit.

I think of Shakespeare's plays as being similar to Bugs Bunny cartoons. When you're a kid, you like the slapstick, when you get to be an adult, you get more of the adult humor and double entendre, and if you actually study the period the cartoon was made, you understand the WWII references. You can enjoy it on different levels no matter where you are.

Here's some preliminary info.

So as a reader, I recommend actually going to performances (we have a Shakespeare Theater about two miles from us.) How it's staged and how it's acted can make a huge difference in how you perceive it.

For example, there are typically three ways to stage a Shakespeare play:

1. In Elizabethan dress and set decoration

2. Set in the place and time the play takes place in.

4. Updated and modern in place and dress.

I could see any number of performances of MacBeth. I loved Romeo + Juliet. I have seen A Midsummer Night's Dream in many ways.

This is why he endures, he's just that good.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:53 AM on March 13 [4 favorites]

A mix of (1) and (3), I'd think. People in Shakespeare's day were much more accustomed to oral transfer of information (speeches, readings, recitations) than we are; there are some indications that people might have read aloud even when by themselves. So the average Renaissance playgoer would be relatively better at following complex spokenlanguage than we are, plus considerably more familiar with the diction and web of cultural references in any given speech.

On the other hand, it's definitely true that different audience members engaged the plays on different levels. I think Andrew Gurr has a discussion of this somewhere-- some middling-status guy wrote home about having seen a Shakespeare play, and gave basically an extremely broad-level plot summary, in which a couple key details were wrong. So you did have the movie-house phenomenon where some people are hanging on every word, and some are trying to feel up the orange-girl while only paying passing attention to the goings-on on stage.

Finally, it is ABSOLUTELY the case that most English Renaissance plays fall far short of Shakespeare in density and complexity of wordplay. 99% of everything is crap, as they say, and early modern drama was no exception.
posted by Bardolph at 11:54 AM on March 13 [2 favorites]

I once took a 6 week summer session 500 level class on Shakespeare's plays. We covered 10-12 of them in that period.

In the beginning, it was a real pain and lots of work to read and re-read keep up on what was going on. After a couple of weeks, however, it became much easier. So much so, that I was amazed I had even had so much trouble to start with.

I think you are underestimating the profound effect the language is having on your comprehension of the material.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 11:57 AM on March 13 [6 favorites]

This is almost precisely why Arrested Development was such a flop when it was on regular broadcast TV.

(And why it was such a tremendous hit once people had the ability to binge watch it on repeat.)
posted by phunniemee at 12:02 PM on March 13 [7 favorites]

Quisp Lover: Even if his plays were transposed to thoroughly modern English, with references also updated, most of Shakespeare's writing would be too dense, rich, and deep for me to properly enjoy at a theatrical pace.

I think the best modern comparison would actually be Arrested Development. Complicated, twisty plots with very dense levels of allusion, references, wordplay, callbacks, foreshadowing, etc. While the average watcher doesn't pick up every reference, part of the fun is watching carefully to see what you can pick out.
posted by Rock Steady at 12:03 PM on March 13 [2 favorites]

Probably not #1, except in the sense that people back then were more used to speaking and listening to speech.

#2, yeah, some people probably caught plays a few times if they really liked it, just as some people now see the same movie more than once, but plays didn't necessarily run for a long time in those days, and if you wanted to see Hamlet again once its run in the Globe was done, you would probably have to see it in a version done by an outside company using a bootleg script, the disadvantages of which should be obvious.

My money's on #3. This is how people today take in movies, TV, and other pop culture (on preview, phunniemee and Rock Steady's example of Arrested Development is perfect), and the theater was a major part of popular culture in the early 17th century. One part of the audience enjoyed the dick jokes, double entendres, and violence, while another part also enjoyed them and figured out just how deep they went. And there were a lot of cultural assumptions which everyone shared that helped everyone understand the broad outlines.

And It's definitely not #4. No Fear Shakespeare exists.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 12:04 PM on March 13

1. Much like Pixar movies, Shakespeare's plays are written to be enjoyed on a lot of different levels. So you could go see them just for the broad strokes and lols, or if you were the right sort of person, you could get some enjoyment out of the more high-falutin upper level stuff.

2. My guess is that theatre audiences in Shakespeare's time would have been to the theatre more often and had less choice than audiences today do. So you'd probably have lots of people who'd seen King Lear enough times to grok the basic story and could start soaking up all the more interesting bits on repeat viewings. They also didn't have a ton of other media outlets to fall back on, so you'd probably go see King Lear and then spend weeks dissecting it with your friends.

3. While other plays of the time were arguably less good (per Bardolph above), they operated within similar conventions. So you wouldn't have to slowly immerse yourself into Shakespeare's style of storytelling, the language, where the fuck even is Verona, etc. Think of the differences between a show like Dragnet from the earlyish days of TV, and a show like True Detective nowadays. We know the conventions of a cop show, so we can riff and hang lampshades and go crazy with high-falutin references. Someone who'd never watched TV would either be lost or just follow the broad strokes.
posted by Sara C. at 12:06 PM on March 13 [3 favorites]

I am not a Shakespeare scholar, but I studied Kierkegaard's interest in Mozart, and was fascinated by his knowledge because, obviously, Kierkegaard had no records or CD's and afaik did not have a perfect ear and could not read music from the paper.
It seems it was customary in the times before radio/tv/recordings/digital media to go to the theatre or opera very, very often, even daily. There were very cheap seats and expensive boxes, so all social sets went there, and it was part of urban life to go several times a week.
Even illiterate people would know the bible quite well, and it seems in Shakespeare's London, a wide crowd knew the basic classics and some regional myths and histories as well. Not profoundly, but in the same way we all sort of know something about Wallis Simpson, Churchill, Hitler, Grace Kelly, Marilyn Monroe, Nixon, even if we are not quite sure who George Bush was.
posted by mumimor at 12:18 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]

I was actually thinking about someone like David Mamet. The cadence of his dialogue is so different when you hear it instead of reading it, but although you might miss many of the specific words on first listen, its not difficult to understand once you get used to it. Whenever I see a new version of a Shakespeare play, I spend the first 20 minutes or so thinking that I am never going to understand what is going on, and then everything just clicks after that.

So many of Shakespeare's lines are wordplay or allusions that depend not just on classical but on popular context. And many of these allusions go by so quickly; it's like trying to parse a Dennis Miller monologue from the 80s. When I watched the David Tennant/Catherine Tate "Much Ado" with my Shakespeare professor friend, she was able to feed me real-time translations ("Civil as an orange" - Seville oranges) that helped a lot. But I had also recently read the play and seen the Joss Whedon version, so I was able to concentrate on the small things that confused me (Why are oranges jerks?). A contemporary viewer would not need that added level of translation.

That's actually one of my complaints about Hamlet being so popular in Intro to Lit anthologies: Hamlet's constantly making one now-obscure pun after another - usually dick jokes, if I remember correctly - so students spend way too much time sussing out the wordplay, which distracts them from seeing other aspects of the plot.
posted by bibliowench at 12:18 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]

I'll agree with virtually everyone that the more Shakespeare you read and see, the easier it is to quickly comprehend it.

One quality of the language that almost everyone until the 20th century was familiar with was how much the language was in flux. People invented almost every other word spoken. I believe there are three Shakespeare signatures in existence, and he didn't even spell his own name the same way on any of them.
posted by xammerboy at 12:21 PM on March 13

(on preview, phunniemee and Rock Steady's example of Arrested Development is perfect)

Given that I said this, let me change my answer: It's more a combination of #2 and #3.

That said, you certainly wouldn't have had as much opportunity to rewatch the plays as you have to rewatch modern TV shows, and the scripts wouldn't have been published in respectable editions until after Shakespeare's death - and you probably would have been illiterate anyway.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 12:21 PM on March 13

I'm also a little curious about how performance and staging styles would have changed people's perception of one of Shakespeare's plays, but I don't know enough about it to be definitive.

Scenery, costumes, and special effects were minimal compared to most media we're used to consuming nowadays. So there's an angle of the whole thing the audience not really thinking much about.

Our modern day idea of ultra-naturalistic acting and whether a given performance was "good" or not is also extremely new, something you can actually watch evolve with film technology. In Shakespeare's day, you wouldn't have had much concentration on, like, "Is this particular Lady Macbeth good at portraying all the complex emotions behind the character of Lady Macbeth?" Lady Macbeth is just Lady Macbeth, and as long as the actor gets all his lines out in a legible manner and doesn't totally break character, that's probably all the thinking you're going to do about the actors and their performances.

The upshot is that the dialogue would have held center stage and probably would have done a lot more of the heavy lifting than in the types of media we're used to nowadays.
posted by Sara C. at 12:23 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]

Maybe not as much opportunity, but you may have been more likely. You wouldn't have had anywhere near the wide selection of things to see as we do today.
posted by xammerboy at 12:23 PM on March 13

I agree with the points about theatrical literacy: another analogy might be the ability to "read" a sporting event, which is a capability that's been built up over a relatively short period of time, especially for events presented through television.

Whenever I see one of his plays for the first time, I feel like someone way smarter than me is firing thoughts and insights at me, rapid-fire

Some of that comes from direction: just as the plays themselves adjusted to their surroundings when they went from the Globe to Blackfriar's, there are productions that aim at a particular reading and set of emphases, and ones that are more broad in their aims. There's a summer open-air Shakespeare season where I live -- performed by amateur actors, but ones pretty experienced with the setting and the expectations of the audience. They often bring out the laugh-out-loud bits of the comedies in a way that's not always found in higher-brow productions.

you certainly wouldn't have had as much opportunity to rewatch the plays as you have to rewatch modern TV shows

That's true, but there was also a smaller, more homogenous repertory for play-goers, albeit with stuff on the margins. Jonson's Bartholomew Fayre is good at portraying this.

And you really want a sense of the theatrical literacy of the early 1600s, you can look at Francis Beaumont's Knight of the Burning Pestle, which is very meta, genuinely funny, and ought to be performed a lot more often.
posted by holgate at 12:58 PM on March 13 [2 favorites]

Yeah, as observed above, his plays were designed to work on a lot of levels. And this wasn't something that stopped happening over time - it's still alive and well in theater. The Glass Menagerie is still a really good play with a lot to think about even if (as I didn't when I read it in high school) you don't realize Tom is gay.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 1:11 PM on March 13

My guess is that a lot of it had to do with the acting. As I recall from my long-ago drama major days (of which one year was spent learning nothing but Shakespeare) the acting style was quite different then, and (I think) probably far more likely to "help" the audience along. Today so many people perform Shakespeare as if it's meant to be a formal recitation of pretty words, and it's...not. I mean, yes the words are breathtaking, which is why Shakespeare is still Shakespeare. But it's also low-brow and crass and slapstick-y, and in my experience that sometimes only comes out after months of research and rehearsal, and some actors/directors probably just shy away from it even if they get it.

I'm also thinking that because Shakespeare wrote plays to be acted, not read, and because he wrote for actors who were right there with him, audiences probably could follow along pretty well. (Even if many of them missed some of the more intellectual aspects of the plays.) If some line or scene was incomprehensible to the audience at the time, I assume it wouldn't have lasted.

About your #4, I'd say that most people today who really enjoy Shakespeare don't just show up at the theatre and understand every word and reference. If they seem to be really into it, they're probably already familiar with the play and quite possibly have just read it again in preparation for the show. That's what I do when I see Shakespeare, and because of my background I'd probably be more capable of just picking it up without that than your average audience member. I think it would be unusual for someone who didn't know the play at all to just absorb it all instantly, and for that to happen would require excellent acting and directing.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 1:19 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]

"These days, if you don't speak in short, simple, terse-to-the-bone sentences, most people's eyes glaze and their hands reach for their iJizz. An adjective is the most decoration/embellishment one can get away with."

I agree with you that this is totally the case. There's no need for a citation for what is in front of your face in every instance. One (fictional) example of someone who doesn't speak in this way though is Frasier Crane. That's why he's such a pleasure to watch/listen to. But of course his use of language is portrayed as tedious, because what's shown is the perspective of the average (real) person.
posted by Blitz at 1:23 PM on March 13

Some interesting points in all responses, and I've highlighted the replies I found particularly illuminating.

But many people are focusing on the obscurity of the references. I tried to remove that (fairly obvious) point from the discussion at hand, because that's not what I'm talking about.

Let's look at just one specific aspect of the density and embellishment: metaphor. Shakespeare will, in a parenthetical within a parenthetical, open up a breathtaking metaphor, expressed in just a scant few words, and then swiftly dart back to the flow of his narrative.

For me, a really interesting metaphor (and one that's not a cliche) takes time to unpack. I need to register, make the comparison, assess aptness and extract wisdom and insight. These things take time, and by the time I get to even step one, the actor's shot ahead 12 lines....and has probably tossed off two or three more slow-digesting nuggets.

Arrested Development is rife with surprising references, and requires some mental agility and open focus, but it's nowhere near as rich. To really parse a fresh metaphor is a whole other thing, and to do so on-the-fly at fast pace just boggles my mind. I think I have to conclude it's #1 and #4: lots of people then - and some people now - are just more fleet of cognition than I am. Which surprises me, because I'm really quite sharp.

I have to assume people could chew, swallow, and digest this stuff more readily then. Either that, or each play was positively overloaded with Rocky & Bullwinkle-style hidden Easter eggs most people were expected to entirely miss.
posted by Quisp Lover at 1:46 PM on March 13

Keep in mind that a lot of these metaphors wouldn't have really needed unpacking, because they'd be things you'd already heard of.

Taking the example of "civil as an orange"/Seville Orange. We now have a MILLION other associations with oranges besides the ones from Seville. We don't pair "orange" and "Seville" in our minds at all.

But imagine a modern day media thing with a metaphor about oranges and a character with the name Clementine. You wouldn't need to pause to think hard about the connection between citrus fruit and the name Clementine. The actor would drop that line, keep talking, and you'd stay with him because you immediately got the joke with no thought.
posted by Sara C. at 1:59 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]

Also, I liked something Sara C. said:

"Think of the differences between a show like Dragnet from the earlyish days of TV, and a show like True Detective nowadays. We know the conventions of a cop show, so we can riff and hang lampshades and go crazy with high-falutin references. Someone who'd never watched TV would either be lost or just follow the broad strokes"

I think that's smart, and I think it also works the OTHER way.

One's very first reaction to Shakespeare might be "geez, those stories are actually kind of corny". And they are. But perhaps they were corny even at the time, and Shakespeare was amusing himself and his audiences by riffing around them (the way, say, bebop musicians amused themselves by deconstructing swing-era standards).

The corny conventions may have been tiresome even back then, but it was a more familiar sort of tiresomeness, so adornments and riffing went down easily. That's where your focus went, just because the familiarness of the vehicle was SO familiar.

By the same token it would be hard, these days, to get away with doing something hip within the realm of knock-knock jokes, because they've been so thoroughly flushed down the toilet of used-up tropes that your audience would be focusing, blearily, on the trope rather than the wrinkle. Finding a creative wrinkle within knock-knock jokes would have been interesting in 1967, when everyone would have been focusing 100% on the wrinkle. Now, we'd be dredging up old memories of knock-knock jokes and trying to parse where convention ends and wrinkle begins.

That was labored, I know, but there's something to it, I think! :)
posted by Quisp Lover at 2:03 PM on March 13

[Hey, Quisp Lover, Ask Metafilter isn't really for chatty discussion (some info in the FAQ), but just for getting solutions or answers to questions. You can comment to clarify misunderstandings or answer questions from commenters, but not so much for back and forth conversation.]
posted by taz at 12:58 AM on March 14

'How much could Shakespeare's audiences have understood?' is a very good question, and one which has attracted a lot of attention from Shakespeare critics. Frank Kermode discusses this point in Shakespeare's Language, and argues that the language of the plays would have been difficult to follow even at the time:
It is simply inconceivable that anybody at the Globe, even those described by Shakespeare's contemporary, the critic Gabriel Harvey, as 'the wiser sort', could have followed every sentence of Coriolanus. Members of an audience cannot stop the actors and puzzle over some difficult expression, as they can when reading the play. The action sweeps you past the crux, which is at once forgotten because you need to keep up with what is being said, not lose the plot by meditating on what has passed. Following the story, understanding the tensions between characters, is not quite the same thing as following all or even most of the meanings.
On the other hand, many of Shakespeare's listeners would have been trained in techniques of rhetoric and memory which would have made it easier for them to follow the structure of an argument and pick out the key passages. Many of them would also have carried pocket notebooks, known as writing-tables, and could have scribbled down notes as they were watching the play.

There's an interesting example of this in a manuscript at the British Library (Add MS 64078) which contains notes on Shakespeare's Henry IV Part I apparently written by someone in the audience. Here's what they might have heard (from Henry's speech in Act III):
And then I stole all courtesy from heaven,
And dressed myself in such humility
That I did pluck allegiance from men's hearts,
Loud shouts and salutations from their mouths,
Even in the presence of the crowned king.
Thus did I keep my person fresh and new,
My presence like a robe pontifical,
Ne'er seen but wondered at.
And here's what they wrote down:
his Presence must be like a Robe pontifical not seene but when tis wondred at & then he must steale Curtesy from Heavn, & dress hymself in such humillity, as he may pluck allegiance from mens harts even in the presence of the Queene.
The writer got the lines in the wrong order, and didn't grasp the meaning of 'ne'er seen but wondered at', but still got the gist of the speech and remembered some of the more striking phrases, like 'pluck allegiance from men's hearts'. If this is any guide, it suggests that Shakespeare's listeners were pretty good at following the language, perhaps better than Kermode thinks.
posted by verstegan at 4:47 AM on March 14 [3 favorites]

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