How is it different watching the play Hamlet to reading it?

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First, the entire written text of Hamlettakes more than four hours to perform, making it Shakespeare's longest play. Most staged versions cut this down substantially to fit the typical two hour play length. That's not to say that all 4,042 lines are never staged in a single production; but,...

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First, the entire written text of Hamlet takes more than four hours to perform, making it Shakespeare's longest play. Most staged versions cut this down substantially to fit the typical two hour play length. That's not to say that all 4,042 lines are never staged in a single production; but, that is rare to see. So, if you are reading it, you are getting the full version, unlike (most of the time) if you see it performed.

Second, a staged version forces an interpretation of the play: is Hamlet to be depicted as mad or just pretending to be mad, for example? How Freudian should the staging be: should it highlight or downplay Hamlet as sexually attracted to his mother and jealous of Claudius for marrying her? Should Fortinbras's role be downplayed or accentuated? How somber should the sets be? Should the action be put into a more contemporary setting to highlight political corruption in today's world? All of these decisions are made for the playgoer ahead of time, whereas readers must use their imaginations and interpret for themselves when they read the text alone.

Attending a play can have an energy that reading a play alone might not. A playgoer reacts to other people in the audience and the actors.

Finally, much can be communicated—and the play made either more humorous or more serious—by the gestures, facial expressions, and costuming of the characters in a staged version. Again, this dimension can only be imagined through reading and is often in danger of being lost.

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One of the most important things that any one ever said to me about reading Shakespeare is this: "Plays are written to be performed." That single statement completely changed my philosophy on teaching. It helped me overcome my fear of teaching Shakespeare and set me on a path to using Shakespeare as much as I could in the classroom.

It's very difficult to say exactly what would be different, but I can give an example of how seeing Hamlet performed would be different than reading it. Let's look at Hamlet's famous "To be or not to be" soliloquy - perhaps the most famous speech in the English language. This part of the soliloquy comes in the middle. There are phrases and words that might be difficult to understand when sitting and reading it. But when you watch someone perform it, it comes alive:

Who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
the pangs of despised love, the law's delay,
the insolence of office and the spurns 
that patient merit of the unworthy takes 
when he himself might his quietus make
with a bare bodkin?

All of these words might merely be words to the reader, but to the audience member, they come alive. An audience member might not be able to understand the words. He or she might not know what a contumely is or what a bodkin is. An audience member doesn't necessarily need to know the definition of these words. The actors and their interpretation make the audience member feel what it means by showing them. This is the essential difference between merely reading the play and participating in it as an audience member.

 

 


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