The student doth protest too much, methinks

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Shakespeare is a word with a variety of connotations. For far too many students, the mention of William Shakespeare or even the mention of 17th century literature inspires dread.

There are well known complaints that the language from this period is too difficult and too far removed from the current day. Students often criticize the plots as slow and the characters as unlikable. 

University English professor Lori Newcomb notices other barriers that make students reluctant to read Shakespearean texts, as well.

“They’re told the plays are masterpieces of poetic language, which suggests that you need to translate them into ordinary speech or put them under glass,” Newcomb said. “They wonder why Shakespeare is called universal when the social structure seems, on the surface, so different from today’s.”

The fear of Shakespearean texts extends to his contemporary’s works, such as John Ford’s “‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore”, published in 1633. This play was performed by students at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts this month, with the last performance this past Sunday. 

As I left the theatre after watching the “‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore” performance, I was genuinely awestruck. The plot was fast moving — there was full-frontal nudity for two characters, multiple stripping scenes and horrifying gore. Plus the two main lovers in the play are brother and sister.

Of course, much of the excitement stemmed from the fact that the production was modernized, but the text is plenty racy by itself, even if performed with original practices.

Regardless of preconceptions about Shakespearean literature, I cannot fathom that any student walked away from “‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore” with a sense of boredom.

The play serves as a reminder not to stereotype or immediately discount any literature from several centuries ago without consideration. In reality, many texts from that period push back against their stereotypes.

The language from this period is drastically easier to understand when it is performed rather than read. Plays from that era leave so much up to interpretation that it is always possible to adapt them to suit modern day audiences.

Current performances are able to add nonverbal elements to 16th and 17th century plays that change the meaning of a scene slightly while still staying true to the text. Further, inflection and emphasis on different words, body language and blocking all has an effect on how the lines are communicated to the audience.

Therefore, modern performances are able to offer visual and auditory cues that help the audience follow what the language says.

In my mind, the language of Shakespeare’s plays is part of what makes him worth reading. That the rhyme and meter are beautiful seems inarguable.

Further, against popular belief, the stories and themes from this period are often quite applicable to current day society.

Stephanie Svarz, a senior studying both theatre and English, also feels these texts written centuries ago still connect with modern day.

“Reading the works of these playwrights connect us with people of the past, who struggled with the same problems we do; we connect with the stories they’re telling,” Svarz said. “Since this is so much a part of our history and being, we have a desire to understand.”

Sometimes the similarities between our time and theirs have to do with love or friendship. But sometimes the similarities are considerably darker.

“Beneath the historical differences, human cruelty and prejudices are all too enduring, and that keeps these plays sadly relevant,” Newcomb said. “The plays show students how easily humans make terrible mistakes, and why we’ve got to work to do better.”

As a disclaimer, although I love studying Shakespeare, I do not want to imply that the works are perfect in a socially conscious manner.

The plot movement and character development can be sexist, classist racist and a slew of other negative -isms.  

These issues are something to be deliberated over when reading a Shakespeare play. They should be discussed in historical context as to how they still function in today’s society.

Studying these societal issues that have persisted for at least the past four centuries adds new dimensions to their seriousness.

These long lasting issues may offer insight on humanity; they beg questions like why we haven’t been able to eradicate classism, racism, sexism, etc., even after centuries of trying.

Therefore, even with, and sometimes because of this problematic content, plays from this period often do still have enormous cultural value.

In short, Shakespeare and his contemporaries are more applicable then they’re often given credit for.

Don’t categorize all literature from his time as stuffy old plays. And, if you’re tempted to do so, rent a copy of “‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore” and see just how non-stuffy these plays can really be.

Alex is a junior in LAS.

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