“Why I always watch Shakespeare with the subtitles on – And I invite you to do the same.” Shakespeare Magazine Editor Pat Reid is convinced that subtitles are good for the brain, and can greatly enhance our enjoyment and appreciation of Shakespeare.

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When my son was a baby, I mentioned to my brother that I was always anxious while watching television at night. If I was enjoying a programme downstairs and I turned up the volume, there was a danger I might not hear the baby crying in his upstairs bedroom. My brother, who already had two children, told me he’d acquired the habit of watching TV with the volume turned down low and the subtitles on. So I started doing this too, and I soon discovered that what I was missing in sound, I was more than making up for in the amount of information I was taking in.

During his toddler years, my son started watching CBeebies, the BBC children’s channel. We were a little concerned at first, because his interest was so intense. But it gave us, his parents, a break, and the programmes were suitably nourishing, so we decided it was all right.

Then we noticed a surprising side effect. Like all parents, we monitored our child’s developmental milestones. He seemed to be a little behind with some of them. But there was one area where he seemingly raced ahead, and that was learning to read.

One day we were watching CBeebies together, and I realised that as we had permanently left the subtitles on, every TV programme our son watched was effectively a reading lesson. A character or presenter would say a simple phrase, the subtitles would correspond with it, and our son was making the connection. He was learning a crucial skill – and, like some Holy Grail of education, it was both effortless and fun.

When he started school at four, our boy was one of the younger children in his class, but one of the most advanced readers. I’m sure that other factors played a part, but CBeebies and subtitles definitely helped.

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But what, you may ask, does this have to do with Shakespeare? Well, I was busy planning and launching Shakespeare Magazine during this time, and I was watching a lot of Shakespeare DVDs. Again, I had the volume down low and the subtitles on. And I began to notice that I was understanding the plays better, and enjoying them more.

How so? Well, often when we watch TV programmes or films, we don’t actually hear everything that’s being said. Sometimes actors can mumble or have their voices drowned out by other sounds. Hollywood films have been like this for decades, but in more recent years a spate of British television dramas have drawn complaints from viewers who can’t properly hear the dialogue. Some viewers in the US have resorted to the subtitles because they can’t understand the new Doctor Who’s accent.

It’s not the end of the world, of course. Usually, our brain goes to work trying to fill in the gaps, and we come away with a good sense of what’s going on. But films and TV shows often leave us with a sense of dissatisfaction and incompletion. I do wonder if that’s a subconscious feeling of being shortchanged when we can’t hear the words.

With Shakespeare productions, I noticed some big differences when I used subtitles. When I saw the 2015 Macbeth film at the cinema, I was initially disappointed. The soundtrack music seemed to be mixed very high, while the male actors all affected the same guttural, clenched-buttock delivery. This was a play I knew very well, and yet I could hardly understand a word that was being said.

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When Macbeth was released for home viewing, I watched it again – this time on my iPad, with the subtitles on. I enjoyed it a lot more, and the mumblecore approach didn’t bug me to the same extent.

A complete contrast was the 2012 BBC production The Hollow Crown, which struck me as being particularly beautiful in terms of sound. I watched this on a rattly portable DVD player (late at night, while working on a laborious email campaign), and even with the volume on the very lowest level, I could still hear pretty much everything. The subtitles did the rest. I was especially struck by the scenes with Jeremy Irons and Tom Hiddleston as Henry IV and Prince Hal – they sounded like a couple of lions purring at one other.

Ralph Fiennes’ 2011 Coriolanus, which I also watched on the portable DVD player, was different again. It’s a first-rate example of a modern-day Shakespeare film, but the sound levels seemed to be all over the place. I suppose this captured the chaos and confusion of war, but it was also likely to wake up my sleeping family, so I turned it right down and largely relied on the subtitles. 

It was a similar story with the 2016 BBC production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I watched this one on our (relatively) big-screen TV, and the problem was I had to keep turning it up because I couldn’t hear the dialogue, but then the soundtrack music would come crashing in (several notches higher than the dialogue) and I had to turn it down again, which meant I couldn’t hear the dialogue, which… You get the picture. At times like this the subtitles are a godsend.

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As it was CBeebies that started all this for me, I’m delighted to say that their two Shakespeare productions, 2016’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and 2018’s The Tempest, have very good sound. But these are lively, exuberant productions with a lot going on, so the subtitles can certainly help to keep track of it all.

So we’ve established that I firmly believe Shakespearean subtitles are good for us. But how does this actually work? My guess is that because we’re seeing it, hearing it AND reading it, this means that more of it goes in – and more of it stays there.

I have to admit that some of my readers have reacted angrily – even viscerally – to my periodic urging to switch on the subtitles. I’m not quite sure why this idea is so offensive to some. I think some people were taught in school that Shakespeare’s plays were “supposed to be heard”, and therefore experiencing them any other way is wrong. It’s an interesting position to take, but I can’t find it within myself to agree.

In my opinion, reading Shakespeare’s works is brilliant, because it gets us nearer to the experience of being Shakespeare’s original actors. In fact, it gets us closer to the experience of actually being Shakespeare.

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I know from my years as a cinema journalist that a lot of people do have an instinctive dislike of subtitles. With the exception of Amélie (way, way back in 2001) very few subtitled films have succeeded at the UK box office. But using subtitles is something that anyone can easily train themselves to do. After all, if you can read a tweet or a text message, or a picture caption, a subtitle doesn’t exactly present a challenge.

Now, before you ask, no, I don’t know if there are any studies or books on this subject, and frankly I don’t care. I KNOW that it works for me. It’s helped my son learn to read, and it’s given me a better understanding of Shakespeare’s texts. And the chances are it’ll work for you as well. So what are you waiting for? Whack on the subtitles, and get stuck into some Shakespeare.

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