Called to cover a Year 7 class for an English teacher in the winter, it was a delight to find that they were doing something that was fun. Or it should have been fun, if the students had not assumed that Shakespeare could only be read in a serious way.
In groups of six, they were reading the passage from Act 1 Scene 2 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream where the Mechanicals are going to rehearse for a play. As Peter Quince tries to allocate the parts, Bottom offers to play most. It is a very humorous piece, but the students could not be dissuaded from the view that Shakespeare was not about smiles and laughter.
Shakespeare knew well enough the audiences of his time, that those who stood and watched could be fickle, rowdy, hostile, that those who came to the theatre expected to be entertained.
The theme of the play within a play is found also in Hamlet, where players arrive at the court of Elsinore. The Players from Hamlet appear in Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guidenstern are Dead. The Player’s words are a reflection on both the times of Shakespeare and on modern times, probably, in fact, on any time in the history of theatre. Acting is a precarious living and people’s tastes tend not to be very discerning:
GUIL: Do you know any good plays?
ROS (coming forward, flattering shyly): Exhibitions…
GUIL: I thought you were actors.
PLAYER (dawning): Oh. Oh, well, we are. We are. But there’s not been much call.
GUIL: You lost. Well, then – one of the Greeks, perhaps? You’re familiar with the tragedies of antiquity, are
you? The great homicidal classics? Matri, patri, fratri, sorrori, uxori and it goes without saying –
ROS: Saucy –
GUIL: – Suicidal – hm? Maidens aspiring to godheads –
ROS: And vice versa –
GUIL: Your kind of thing, is it?
PLAYER: Well, no, I can’t say it is, really. We’re more of the blood, love and rhetoric school.
GUIL: Well, I’ll leave the choice to you, if there is anything to choose between them.
PLAYER: They’re hardly divisible, sir – well, I can do you blood and love without rhetoric, and I can do you blood and rhetoric without love, and I can do you all three concurrent or consecutive, but I can’t do you love and rhetoric
without blood. Blood is compulsory – they’re all blood, you see.
GUIL: Is this what people want?
Four hundred years after Shakespeare, the lockdown has meant the future of theatre is very uncertain. Guildenstern asks what it is that people want and survival will mean giving people what they want. It will probably demand more characters in the tradition of Peter Quince and Nick Bottom and few in the tradition of Hamlet, prince of Denmark.