The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Why We Still Need Shakespeare

As we get ready to announce our new Shakespeare in American Communities grantees, we thought it was an opportune time to reflect on the continued importance of teaching, reading, and performing Shakespeare. And who better to explain this than those who have been personally touched, influenced, and inspired by the Bard? Below are excerpts from past NEA interviews that shed light on Shakespeare's enduring impact.

"I have directed 20 of [Shakespeare's] magnificent plays and produced several others.... With every production, he continues to feed my soul and provide our audiences with exciting, vibrant theater." ---Joel Jahnke, artistic director of Montana Shakespeare in the Parks 

"It was through studying [Shakespeare] in grad school that I realized how incredibly lovely the written word can be." ---Actress Heather Wood

"[In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare] structures Romeo in Act I as a shallow boy, a figure of fun, and then turns the play on a pivot so that we care deeply for him by Act V. I try to set myself that sort of challenge in my novels. Since I write romance, the challenge is to make the reader believe, if only momentarily, that this time, the promise of the cover and the genre itself won’t come true." ---Author and Shakespeare scholar Eloisa James

"With Shakespeare, they’re such classic tales. All the characters are so interesting and complex, and the language is so exciting to speak. In one line of Shakespeare, so much is said with just a few syllables." ---Actress Gretchen Hall

"Shakespeare writes about people and the dilemmas of people and he does it vividly, with extraordinarily beautiful language. But he also does it with real language. What I mean by that is that much of it is of the street. He knew his people, he knew about their crafts and livelihoods and the specifics of their very real lives. Whether he is telling of kings and duchesses or tradesmen and fairies, he writes about real people’s experiences: the pride a joiner takes in his work, the loss of a child, the savagery that nurtured and unbridled jealousy inflicts, the effects of battle on war-torn men, how long it takes to smother a woman with a pillow. It took well-honed specifics of the human condition to keep those groundlings watching a play when they could have been watching bear-baiting, visiting brothels or drinking in the pub instead. That specificity is what continues to appeal today. We like to recognize ourselves, even if it is uncomfortable. It makes us feel accounted for." ---Actress Francesa Faridany 

"I read [all the Shakespeare scholarship.] And then, you sort of have to throw it all away and make the play with the people in the room. You know, the scholarship is useful to a theater maker, exactly to the extent that it ignites imagination and that’s it. Beyond that, then it’s a program note; that’s what libraries are for.... One has to be careful of making theater around scholarship. You kind of have to make the play based on its emotional and psychological life. And yes, it’s textual life as well. But there’s so many productions that are categorically ruined by some sort of fealty to scholarship." ---Joseph Haj, artistic director of Playmakers Repertory Company at the UNC, Chapel Hill.

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