Experiencing Shakespeare

Experiencing Shakespeare coverExperiencing Shakespeare: From Page to Stage
Alissa Branch, MA
University of Oklahoma
$24.95 when on sale at The Great Courses
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or stream the course with a Wondrium subscription

The premise of this course is that Shakespeare is meant to be heard and seen on the stage and not read in a book. That would appear to be obvious, but too often his work gets read rather than seen performed.

Alissa Branch is an experienced actor and director who knows Shakespeare well. With the help of two young actors she explains how we can best experience the great playwright. She begins the course by talking about Shakespeare and the Elizabethan age. Branch tells us that the theater was probably the only place where people of all social classes came together. She says that the theaters were crowded, with some attendees right next to the stage. Branch explains they were a rowdy bunch, often interjecting comments as the players performed. She describes how theaters had no roof, just an overhang above the stage, and plays were performed in the daytime, not at night. Women were not allowed on the stage, so women’s parts were performed by boys whose voices had not yet changed.

Branch explains what most of us probably learned when we studied Shakespeare in school: he wrote most of the dialogue in iambic pentameter, blank verse. Each line consists of ten beats positioned in an unstressed-stressed pattern. However, in a later lecture she describes how Shakespeare wrote some of his dialogue in prose, which the playwright uses to indicate a change in mood or tone.

When I took my Shakespeare class in high school the paperback versions we read had stage directions, but those came from later editions. As Mr. Hill, our teacher, constantly pointed out, the original manuscripts had no stage directions. Branch spends some time explaining how the actors had to discern entrances and exits as well as the blocking by extracting hints from a careful reading of the dialogue. In fact, actors in the Elizabethan age did not even have full scripts. The printing press at the time was just beginning to come into its own, so actors worked from a long parchment “role” with only their lines, plus, perhaps a few notes providing cues. Modern actors, obviously, receive complete scripts, and when performing Shakespeare often mark their iambic pentameter dialogue with the stressed and unstressed syllables.

While many Great Courses series consist of only a single professor providing the lectures, Branch had the assistance of two professional actors, a woman named Brooke and a man named Kam. Brooke and Kam performed scenes from various plays, helping to demonstrate the point Branch making. The three of them also demonstrated what the environment might be like in the rehearsal room. Branch took on the role of director while Brook and Kam discussed how they might deliver their lines and block out their stage movements, making notes in their scripts as they worked. While it’s easy to take a performance on the stage or on the television screen for granted, Brooke and Kam showed how much preparation is necessary to achieve the end result.

Most Great Courses lecture series are twenty-four or thirty-six lessons, but Experiencing Shakespeare is only twelve. That’s about six hours of material, and it is six hours well spent.

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