Is Shakespeare really THAT good? Is it TRULY the best stuff ever written in English? ("You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon.") Is it STILL worth watching 400 years later? You know my answers are yes, but let me tell you why.
The director Peter Brook said, "Shakespeare never intended anyone to study Shakespeare." In other words, Shakespeare didn't write dusty old scripts, meant to be dissected in high school English classes. He wrote the most vibrant, brilliant, popular entertainment of his time. He knew his audience, and he gave them what they wanted: love, hate, greed, lust, sacrifice, revenge, forgiveness, humor, bawdiness, passion, music, dance, gods, monsters...everything. Oh, and sword fights. Lots of sword fights. But he also gave them soaring poetry, witty banter, and even occasion for serious reflection. I'm convinced that if Shakespeare were alive today, his work would be the love child of Aaron Sorkin, Steven Spielberg, and Khalil Gibran, with just a touch of Dan Savage thrown in for good measure.
It's true that, today, we are far more sophisticated in some ways than was Shakespeare's audience; we can spot a cheap special effect a mile away (because we know what a REAL laser battle in space would look like.) We know that no one speaks in verse. To make it rhyme sounds even worse. And we know that merely wearing different clothes would never ACTUALLY fool anyone into thinking a woman was a man (unless it's Meryl Streep, 'cuz that woman can do ANYTHING.) But Shakespeare's audiences knew more about some things than we do: the history of England, for example. And Latin. And rhetoric. And yes, sword fighting.
Indeed, then, there are some challenges to watching - or playing - Shakespeare today that were not challenges in Shakespeare's day. But they're not necessarily bad things; they're new opportunities for actors, and new discoveries for audiences. They simply make watching - or playing - Shakespeare a DIFFERENT experience today than it was then.
I sometimes compare Shakespeare to opera. It's not a surprise, really, as they originated at about the same time. (The first opera, Dafne, had its premier in 1597.) Opera uses a language familiar to us, music, but in a different, sometimes more complex way than we're used to these days; the same can be said of Shakespeare's use of English. Opera may ask a bit more of its audience than most other music. It takes some concentration in order to appreciate it more fully, and the audience member's experience can be greatly enhanced by - dare I say it - a bit of preparatory education. Again, the same holds true for Shakespeare. You certainly don't NEED to study either to enjoy them, but the work is so deep and layered, preparation can make it, in my opinion, a richer experience.
There's one more reason to see Shakespeare - or at least, one more impediment I don't think you should let stop you. It's going to sound a bit self-serving, but I beg your indulgence: you need to see GOOD Shakespeare. You need to see Shakespeare done well. You need to see people perform the plays who can plumb the depths and heights and layers upon layers of meaning and emotion out of those not-actually-dusty old scripts; all that love, hate, greed, lust, sacrifice, revenge, lust, forgiveness, humor, bawdiness, passion, music, dance, gods, monsters...everything. People who are also, not coincidentally, really good at sword fights. And the Michigan Shakespeare Festival is one of those places. Not that one shouldn't see Shakespeare whenever the opportunity arises, but MSF is peopled by such a talented group of professionals, it makes me giggle just to think I get to work with them. Seriously, like, 7 year-old playing with a My Little Pony giggle.
So come visit us in Jackson - or Canton! - this summer, and see what the fuss is all about. See why Shakespeare is STILL the best stuff in English, and see why I love his work so much. And sword fights. Lots of sword fights.