By Ben Crystal

11 February 2014 - 12:27

'Shakespeare's plays are manuals on how to perform, not books to be read.'
'Shakespeare's plays are manuals on how to perform, not books to be read.' Photo: Shakespeare's Globe ©

David Stanley, licensed under CC.BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.

As we celebrate the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, UK actor, author and producer Ben Crystal relates what it's like to speak the work of a playwright who has contributed so many new words and phrases to the English language.

I'm a lucky man, but I can’t count the number of times I have been smiled at with toleration rather than agreement, after I’ve suggested Shakespeare's plays are manuals on how to perform, not books to be read. I’ve said it so many times surely everyone must have heard this by now, but still people look at me as if I’ve suggested we teach our younglings how to slaughter fluffy cats with wooden spoons.

I experienced similar reactions in America in 2011. As artist-in-residence at the University of Nevada, I was happy to speak anywhere that asked, and as a result I popped into a school about once a week for three months, getting a bead on the education system out there, in schools of all levels and standings.

There though, the students loved him - the problem was they didn't feel as if they had permission, or ownership over his works, unless they spoke in a pseudo-British accent.

This was not new news to me - I've met with similar issues in Europe, and again across India, having been taken there by the British Council in 2010. Most students away from these UK shores adore Shakespeare.

In his homeland, unless you catch them young, a dislike gets deep under the skin and stays engrained, enduring wind and weather.

My actor friends will offer vital parts of their anatomy to be on stage in front of an audience, to perform his works. It’s a wonderful experience, to rehearse, to memorise, to perform, to speak these words and switch out of the world. We spend hours puzzling over a meaning of a line, fascinated to discover a word such as assassination was invented by Shakespeare for a play about murder.

And while the eternal arguments of relevancy and modern translation continue to rise and fall, I would not change a single word, because, as I get older, I realise it’ll only be a matter of time before a line I thought was idiotic becomes a description of the day I’ve just had.

I know what it feels like to have hated his works in school, and what it feels like to stand on stage as an adult, to play Hamlet, and fly the light fantastical. I’m lucky enough to have been at the one extreme, and travelled the full spectrum of Shakespeare loathing to loving.

It’s a wonderful thing that his works are considered to be of such great literary worth that they are invited to rub shoulders with Austen, Dickens and Hardy. But he was a playwright. He crafted plays, for his actors, for an audience, for the Theatre [sic].

Acting, in general, is a great job. Acting Shakespeare is the best job in the world, even if you are burdened with a pervasive sense of duty to all the others that have spoken these words before you. It takes humility, passion, craft, and a touch of razzle-dazzle.

Shakespeare is the reason I don’t work a regular nine-to-five. He’s the reason I’m miserable sometimes, he’s often the reason I laugh hard, and he’s sometimes the reason life can feel like a shambles.

But most days, I get to work with the best English language playwright we have ever seen. As I say, I consider myself lucky.

Ben Crystal is an actor, author and producer. He tweets from @bencrystal.

You'll find English language teaching resources on Shakespeare on our Teaching English site.

You can also attend the English Language Council Lecture with Ben Crystal in London or watch it as a live-stream (both free registration) on 12 February. The lecture is presented by the English-Speaking Union and the British Council in partnership.

You might also be interested in: