This site assumes that the study of literature should be a comprehensive experience not limited to the words on a printed page. While accepting the achievement of the New Criticism in accurate analysis of words alone, we feel that full understanding of a script also requires a full sense of its context – not only of the work’s immediate setting in the life and times of its author but of the derivation of its content and form. It is not accidental that our chart of the content of Shakespeare’s plays shows how they cover a broad cross-section of human history, at least as far as it was known to Elizabethans (only the Americas and Far East are faintly recognized, because of the limited access achieved then by Europeans). This vast content explains Shakespeare’s universality, which is what renders him accessible across such a broad spectrum of cultures. Moreover, not only does he display the evolution of western civilization at key moments, he also does so with the overt aid of most of its supreme recorders, from Homer, Virgil, and Plutarch, via Boccaccio and Petrarch, down to the masters of his own age.
Moreover, we feel that literature in general, not only drama, has an oral and social component, so that performance provides an intrinsic enrichment of community understanding. The experience of literature is enriched by something more than a silent reading. The high impact of restaging works of historical significance before a live audience gives them an immediacy and relevance which imbeds them more deeply in the imagination and experience of all participants, further reinforced if this dynamic encounter is enriched by a community relevance. Indeed, it might be urged that any society devoid of flourishing drama is in an unhealthy condition of psychological deprivation. This concept may explain the increasing recognition of the powerful improvement in the recidivist rate achieved by the application of Shakespeare’s drama to American prisons, as developed recently by many universities, such as the association of the University of California at Berkeley with the prisoners of San Quentin. In other words the nature of drama provides a culminating artistic experience of a highly therapeutic nature.
We are inclined to assert that almost all literature aspires to some degree to this dramatic mode, as seen in the power of modern media to recreate literature of all forms dynamically, so that lyrics are recited, novels narrated aloud, and all genres are regularly rephrased as plays, films, television or radio broadcasts. Live drama provides a unique communal experience, focusing the bearing of the past on our understanding of the present. The concern of modern Presentists such as Terence Hawkes to integrate that past with our own immediate concerns is understandable, but as teachers we also feel that merely fragmenting past achievements to serve local modern concerns ignores the powerful instructional potential of accurate recognition of the past and the insights offered by its divergences from our own world. The consolidation of human experience afforded by Shakespeare may prove salutary, particularly if it is reinforced by the dynamic sensory range of experience recorded in this site.
One principle motive for the present site may therefore be simply to document this kind of significance to the performance of Shakespeare that each age, from his own time, has achieved, through insights into his work which remain relevant to our own appreciation of it, and understanding of its relevance to our own. For example, Sarah Siddons uncovered the richness and significance of such female characters as Lady Macbeth and Queen Katherine of Aragon as part of the enhancement of female roles, which began as soon as actresses began to appear in Shakespeare performances after the Restoration reopening of the theatres. The intervention of Marxist and Fascist readings of Shakespeare’s political plays is another set of insights attributable to the era of Brecht’s Coriolanus and Orson Welles’s Julius Caesar. Twentieth century Absurdist Theatre in the style of Samuel Beckett has transformed our appreciation of intimidating plays such as King Lear, while the recent psychedelic age’s erratic mysticism has reconciled modern audiences to the eccentricities of such romances as Pericles, Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale.
However, equally important to this sense of the illuminating history of performance is our desire for the site to participate in the pedagogical revolution in the teaching of the humanities by a more interactive approach, reflected in the prominence now given both in Shakespeare’s studies and in the classroom to performance approaches. These considerations were accommodated in the U.C. Berkeley Shakespeare Program, described in detail on our site as a potential model. These efforts not only invested more of students’ total personalities and physique in Shakespeare experience, but thereby enriched their capacity to express meaningful responses to the scripts in writing, as fully outlined in our advice to students. This pattern can be extended to other leading authors such as Chaucer, Milton, and Blake, as proposed in our advice to teachers using our site
No less important is the remedying of one of the greatest lacks in current American education: adequate training in oral expression. We have found that our Shakespeare students have learnt from their performances how to address audiences of hundreds effectively, an important administrative and even political resource. Yet more interesting is the result of Shakespeare’s pitch-perfect sense of the intonations of modern English, to which he has largely contributed via the innumerable staging of his plays. Many of our English-as-second-language students have said how much they have learned in performing Shakespeare about the authentic cadencing of English oral expression, which actually approximates to iambic pentameter. So that our ultimate intent in this project is not simply to provide cultural data, but also to foster that mastery of human expression which is the key to all civilization.