Shakespeare Interpretation

Developing Shakespeare Interpretation Skills

Shakespeare's Plays
Shakespeare's Plays.

The reason Shakespeare is performed so often is that his plays are “open texts”. Directors, actors and film makers have been drawn to his plays in order to revise, reinvent and creatively interpret his work afresh. Many of Shakespeare’s characters and their relationships are very ambiguous, opening up new creative possibilities.

Take any seemingly straightforward situation from any Shakespeare play and you will find ambiguity.

For example, in The Taming of The Shrew, Kate makes a very subservient speech to her husband at the end of the play. It appears, at least on the surface, that Kate has indeed been tamed, but there are ways of delivering the speech that offer the possibility of strengthening her role and weakening his. You could adjust her tone of voice, the distance between them, his reaction to her submission, or even his friends’ reactions – small changes can give this speech fresh meaning for the post-feminist world.

It is easy to be seduced by the idea of inventing a new angle every time you work on a Shakespeare play, but you must ensure that your interpretation fits and that its logical framework can carry the whole narrative, not just parts of it.

Workshop: Developing your Shakespeare Interpretation Skills

This is my five-step guide to the interpretive process:

  1. Imagination. Begin by reading the text aloud and make a note of all the images that pop into your imagination. Write down or even sketch some of these observations. Pay particular attention to the images you have of location and the appearance of the characters. For example, what does Duncan’s castle look like? What is the weather like there? What does Macbeth look like? What is he wearing? Don’t worry about historical accuracy yet, just focus on the first images that come to mind.
  1. Cultural contexts. Now imagine what the same location might look like in a different cultural context. Do the images in your imagination look right in 1930s England? Or perhaps they suit the political situation in a modern-day country? Decide which contexts you want to explore further.
  2. Project your images. Begin to project the other locations of the play into your chosen context. Most Shakespeare plays have at least four locations. Use the same logic to determine the look of each location. Sketch or describe other key characters and ensure they make sense within your framework.
  1. Consult others. You now have a basic performance concept, but it is important to consider the practicallity of your idea before proceeding. You should consult both the creative and production team as they might see weaknesses in your concept. If your company is happy, you should consider the implications of your performance context. For example, what themes and political ideas emerge from choosing to set Othello in modern-day Lebanon? Does this play really “speak” about the situation there?
  2. Research. You need to thoroughly research the historical and cultural context of your chosen production. Don’t revert to stereotypical or clichéd forms of representation in the absence of knowledge.

The rest is down to the creative process! As long as your performance concept works in practice, all you need to do is follow its logic. If you are playing Romeo as a gum chewing mafia member, your movement will need to reflect this. But don’t be afraid to explore alternatives and experiment in the early stages of rehearsal. Choosing the most obvious interpretation is sometimes the least interesting from the audience’s perspective.

Duncan Fewins is our regular “Teaching Shakespeare” columnist.

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Your Citation
Fewins, Duncan. "Shakespeare Interpretation." ThoughtCo, Sep. 30, 2015, Fewins, Duncan. (2015, September 30). Shakespeare Interpretation. Retrieved from Fewins, Duncan. "Shakespeare Interpretation." ThoughtCo. (accessed November 21, 2017).