The Quest | The Free Press of Reed College

Cool Thesis of the Week: Shakespeare for the Masses

Lisa Henderson is taking Shakespeare to the SU to remind people how his plays were originally—crude, spontaneous, and geared toward everyone.

Shakespeare—the name evokes fear in high school English classes the world over. Brought to mind is an elitist, inaccessible playwright who takes a doctorate to be understood.

Not so, says Lisa Henderson ’12. Lisa, of Arnold, Missouri, is writing her spring-fall interdisciplinary English-Theater thesis on the original way Shakespeare’s plays were performed. They were a far cry from the highbrow renditions of today, she says. The thesis, which Lisa is writing with English professor Laura Leibman and Theater professor Kathleen Worley, will culminate in a performance by Lisa that will adapt the original style as closely as possible for the modern day.

“Shakespeare’s become this symbol of the ivory tower, and I hate that,” says Lisa. In the Elizabethan theater of Shakespeare’s day, however, “Shakespeare was entertaining everybody from the town drunk… to the nobility… and you had to entertain all of that spectrum at once.”

“College students will laugh at a good dick joke, and that’s important, God dammit.”

“The theaters themselves were not very reputable places,” Lisa says. While modern audiences are frowned on for so much as a vibrating cellphone, the audiences of Shakespeare’s day ate, talked, and heckled performers. Far from making them less valuable performances, though, says Lisa, this lent the plays an “immediacy” that improved them in some ways. It went well, she says, with Shakespeare’s metatheatrical style, which featured plays within plays and lines like “All the world’s a stage.”

The actors took Shakespeare differently, too. In what is now called “Original Practice,” actors  used strictly delineated symbols to demonstrate what their character was feeling. Clasped hands meant a character was imploring another, and actors always raised a fist to show when they were angry. Actors also never received full copies of scripts, but instead a scroll with only their own lines and cue lines. Though there was sometimes rehearsal, says Lisa, “it was all pretty improvish.” However, they also had to know many plays at once to keep audiences happy. Since plays were entertainment for commoners, they were competing with other forms of entertainment, Lisa says, like bear-baitings. As a result of the many plays they knew at any one time, she says, “Elizabethan actors had incredible memories.”

Another wrong modern perception of Shakespeare, Lisa says, is that it was performed in what is now perceived as a high-class English accent. Instead, Elizabethan accents were closer to the modern Appalachian accent than anything else, with elements of modern Scottish and English accents as well.

To Lisa, one of Shakespeare’s most under-appreciated features is his mass appeal to any theater-goer. In many parts of Shakespeare, she says, “it’s a beautiful and articulate thing, and it means another thing—and it’s a dick joke.” Academics shouldn’t forget this, she says. “College students will laugh at a good dick joke, and that’s important, god dammit.”

She hopes her performance this October, which will include monologues and a scene from As You Like It, and the prologue from Henry V, interspersed with explanation and background, will achieve this. Though there are some limitations with the training of modern actors, Lisa will attempt to adapt what she calls “Modified Original Practice” and bring her performance to the SU among the audience to help accentuate the lowbrow elements of it.

Lisa urges seniors not to let thesis make them miserable, and she urges anyone to approach her at any time to talk about Shakespeare, because, after all, it’s for everyone.

“You can appreciate Romeo and Juliet if you’re a young man in love, and you can appreciate it if you’re an old jaded man… and you can appreciate it if you like dick jokes,” Lisa says. “What I would like to do is make Shakespeare a populist playwright again.”

Do you have or know of a thesis that compels attention? Just want to see your face in the Quest? Email with “Cool Thesis” in the subject line.

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