It’s no secret that I’m addicted to reading. I started staring at printed pages before I learned to walk and I was pulling the meaning from them before I could tie my shoes so reading was never hard. Want to hear a secret? Reading the Classics, those old, required plays and poems was hard for me, at first. My eyes, trained for the fast-paced, economic sentences of the twentieth century, stopped dead at Elizabethan verse and Middle English. Now, professors tend to look down on would-be English Majors who can’t discuss Shakespeare and Chaucer, so I had to resolve the issue. You could say I got a lot of help. I’d prefer to think of it as cheating.
The Canterbury Tales
Take enough English classes and eventually you’ll bump up against Chaucer’s famous tales. The premise is simple. A bunch of religious travelers meet at a pub and amuse each other through the evening by telling stories. The problem is, they’re speaking in Middle English, which has, at best, a nodding acquaintance with our type of palaver. As an example, I’ll give you the start of my favorite, The Miller’s Tale:
Whilom ther was dwellynge at oxenford
A riche gnof, that gestes heeld to bord,
And of his craft he was a carpenter.
With hym ther was dwellynge a poure scoler,
Hadde lerned art, but al his fantasye
Was turned for to lerne astrologye,
Now the way to get through this thicket is to remember these Tales were written to be read aloud. They’re performance pieces. Sound the words out and what do you get?
There was dwelling at Oxenford A rich “Gnof” that boarded guests. He was a carpenter. With him was a poor student that had learned art but whose fantasy was to study astrology.
That’s close enough to the modern translation to keep going. There are only two warnings I should give about reading The Tales out loud. First off, sounding those words out loud sounds a little funny at first so try to do this by yourself. Second, you should know Chaucer had a bawdy sense of humor. There are parts of the Miller’s Tale that still make me laugh out loud while I blush. So, if you must read this to somebody, pick a friend you cannot be embarrassed around. Now let’s get on to the next part of the lesson.
Shakespeare (Without Tears)
Breathes there a student so well-read
Who never to himself has said,
“Why do I have to read this crap?”
My apologies to Sir Walter Scott for stealing his rhyme scheme but we all have been bored by the Bard at some point. Bill wrote some dandy plays, all right, but the speeches are written as verse and they’re heavy texts. No one has short lines in Shakespeare. Every sentence is full of allusions and metaphors (the reason other authors keep reusing his lines as their book titles) and it’s damned hard to catch all the references when they’re on the page, staring back at you. So make it easy on yourself. Don’t read the lines at first, listen to them. Listen and watch someone performing them, preferably an actor with the chops to bring out the references. Take a gander at the video below from one of Canada’s best exports ever, “Slings and Arrows” and you’ll see what I mean:
Did you get the question in the front? If Hamlet’s aware of the men behind the curtain, his speech is to make them believe he’s nuts (when he’s not). If he isn’t aware of them, then our prince is dangerously depressed. You can’t get that from reading the text but it does bring options to an actor’s performance. Bill’s plays are performance art and a skillful production can bring out more meaning than any flat page.
Introduce yourself to material in the format it was meant for and then go over it with your script. You’ll be amazed how the work comes to life. And if someone compliments you on your understanding of the classics, just smile and duck your head. No needs to know that you had help. That secret stays between us cheaters.