“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.

If you were one of those lucky enough to get a ticket, director Kenneth Branagh’s massively over-subscribed RADA Hamlet starring Tom Hiddleston was all about the “intimacy and intensity” of acting craft at its finest, writes Maddy Fry

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Photos by Johan Persson

I’ve often found it comforting that most of Tom Hiddleston’s alter-egos seem incapable of making good choices. Whether it’s the PTSD-inspired alcoholism of Freddie Page in The Deep Blue Sea or the Shakespearean sibling angst of the Marvel villain Loki, most of his characters are dogged by despair and failure.

Even the nefarious Prince Hal of The Hollow Crown and the enigmatic Jonathan Pine at the centre of The Night Manager go through considerable travails before fulfilling their true purpose. It seemed apt that director Kenneth Branagh described the Prince of Denmark, that great monument to unfulfilled ambition, as “the role he was born to play.”

For any devotee of Hiddleston, the chance to see him as Hamlet in a tiny central London theatre, nestled within the walls of his old drama school, felt akin to seeing The Beatles at the Cavern Club – the sense of a colossal talent scaled down while losing none of its potency. The result was little short of magical.

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Up close and personal in RADA’s 160-seat auditorium, the play opened with Hamlet sitting in near-darkness at the piano, crooning out a low wolf-howl of defeat.

“And will he not come again?” our hero moaned, lamenting the absence of his father via the heart-wrenching cadence of “No, no he is dead. Go to thy deathbed…”

Hamlet’s alienation and sense of betrayal over his mother’s hasty remarriage was, particularly for those in the front row, frighteningly visceral, made manifest through kicking and screaming, spit, sweat and tears. In turn, Hiddleston masterfully depicted Hamlet’s inability to be what those around him needed – supportive, vengeful, loving, or even just consistent.

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Much has been made of how HiddleHamlet’s madness was undoubtedly feigned; yet the production’s great strength was the ease with which he switched to an all-too-real malice and vindictiveness. His brushing aside of Ophelia (Kathryn Wilder), triggering her fatal sense of abandonment, combined with his shrugging off the deaths of his informant friends, were shocking in their callousness.

Yet one couldn’t shake the feeling that the derangement and loss of control in Hamlet’s eyes after murdering Polonius (Sean Foley) was genuine. The final duel resulting in the Prince’s death, barely two feet from my seat, was no less agonising for its portrayal of one man imprisoned by grief, with its destructive effects spiralling outwards.

The threat of military conquest by Norway always hung in the foreground, but more than anything this Hamlet was about bereavement and family breakdown – the torment caused by our relatives moving on, even if we can’t, and robbing us of any space to heal. Proof, as though it were needed, that Shakespeare speaks to us for the moment we find ourselves in. Few plays have left me waking up sobbing the next day, but the rage, remorse and anguish on display still resonated, to the refrain throughout of “Go to thy deathbed…”

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Yet on the night, for those in attendance it was three hours of uncomplicated happiness. Watching Hiddleston seamlessly recite ‘To Be Or Not To Be’ right in front of me was enough to make me feel thankful for my pulse. As much as I loved Benedict Cumberbatch’s 2015 turn at the Barbican, it couldn’t rival RADA’s Hamlet for intimacy and intensity of craftsmanship.

This performance of Hamlet took place on 20 September 2017 at the Jerwood Vanbrugh Theatre, London

Back in 2014, an illuminating interview with Hollow Crown Fans kicked off the very first issue of Shakespeare Magazine. This month, we caught up with Rose from HCF for a timely update on her Shakespearean activities

Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III

Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III

 
Your very own #ShakespeareSunday hashtag began in 2012, and is still reaching new Twitter heights.
Rose: “There have been great themes and theme pickers over the years, and it continues to show just how popular and global the Bard’s works are. The Bard’s birthday celebrations this year actually landed on a #ShakespeareSunday which was great timing, even Stan Lee and Chaka Khan joined in! It really is fun to see who discovers the tag each week, as well as enjoying the creativity of the regular tweeters on the tag.

“Since the interview with Shakespeare Magazine in 2014 we had the unexpected good news that Neal Street were going to make a second series of The Hollow Crown, with Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III, which has come and gone. Now there are already rumours of a third series involving the Roman plays, so that is certainly an area I’ll be looking into further. It has been a popular theme on #ShakespeareSunday a few times, and Coriolanus a favourite to quote from since Tom Hiddleston starred in the leading role at the Donmar in 2013. The Roman plays seem to be very much the choice of the moment, and Hollow Crown fans are also excited at the prospect of Julius Caesar opening in London next year with Ben Whishaw and David Morrissey!”

Maxine Peake (left) as Doll Tearsheet in The Hollow Crown

Maxine Peake (left) as Doll Tearsheet in The Hollow Crown

 
Which Shakespeare character most resembles you?
“Going off from the Hollow Crown cast for this question, I’d say Doll Tearsheet… maybe. I can rock the English peasant look, for good or bad, even Neal Street thought that when they cast me as an extra for Henry V! Ha Ha.”

If I ask you to give me a Shakespeare quotation, which is the first one that comes to your mind?
“What relish is in this? How runs the stream? Or I am mad, or else this is a dream.” – Twelfth Night (Act IV, Scene 1)

You have the power to cast anyone in the world (actor or otherwise) to play any Shakespearean character. Who do you choose – and which role do they play?
“Seth Numrich – Prince Hal / Henry V. I have become a fan of Seth’s via another love of mine, the AMC TV series TURN: Washington’s Spies. Fans of the Bard and history really need to check this show out if they have not done so already. Fantastic cast, gripping storyline and Shakespeare quotes dropped in at various points over the seasons. There is a wonderful YouTube video of Seth quoting from The Merchant of Venice (“The quality of mercy is not strain’d…”) that has not left my head since watching it many moons ago. To see him on stage doing Shakespeare would be a real treat!

Seth Numrich in TURN

Seth Numrich in TURN

 
“In his interview for Muse of Fire (which you can see on Globe Player, 47 minutes in) Seth mentions his desire to play the role of Prince Hal, and he would be perfect. One of my favourite characters from The Hollow Crown and Shakespeare’s plays as a whole. I watched this interview in 2015 and I’m still waiting. If I had the power I’d certainly make it happen! Whilst we all wait, do check out Seth with Matt Doyle in Private Romeo, an all-male cast set in a high-school military academy.”

Follow Hollow Crown Fans on Twitter, and join the #ShakespeareSunday festivities each weekend.

Read our Hollow Crown Fans interview in Shakespeare Magazine 01.

Read the Hollow Crown Fans interview with actor Edward Akrout in Shakespeare Magzazine 04.

We love the richly symbolic new 2016 Shakespeare coins from the Royal Mint – but are they actually committing an act of treason against the Queen?

Shakespeare fans who are also numismatists are giddy with glee at the 2016 William Shakespeare £2 coins issued by the Royal Mint.

The three coins celebrate Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories and Tragedies.
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The ‘Comedies’ coin is conventional enough, depicting a Shakespearean jester or Fool.
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But the ‘Histories’ coin has rather more powerful imagery. It depicts Shakespeare’s “Hollow Crown” pierced by a short sword or dagger.
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As the coin’s other side features our present Queen, sharp-eyed commentators have wondered if this could be interpreted as being disrespectful – potentially even treasonous – towards the monarch?

My interpretation is that the Hollow Crown symbol accurately represents the overriding theme of Shakespeare’s Histories – the legitimacy of rulers and the fate of those who usurp the throne.

So, when we turn over the ‘Histories’ coin we find Queen Elizabeth II. The crown is no longer hollow – it’s worn by the longest-reigning monarch in English history, and the namesake of Shakespeare’s Queen (Elizabeth I) as well.

If possible, the ‘Tragedies’ coin is even more striking – disturbing, even. It features a very gothic-looking Skull-and-Rose motif.
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I’m intrigued to know if this is the first time a skull has appeared on a British coin?

The message of this coin is clear: it’s about death. And when we flip the coin over, we once again find the Queen’s head, and the inescapable thought that one day her reign will come to an end.

Reinforcing this notion, we’ve noticed that if you place the upper half of the ‘Histories’ coin upon the lower half of the ‘Tragedies’ coin, what results is a very sinister image of a skull apparently wearing a crown.
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In Shakespeare’s time it was considered treason to speculate about the death of the monarch – and we all know what the penalty was for treason.

But I think what the ‘Tragedies’ coin is saying is that, like Shakespeare himself, Queen Elizabeth II will live on – in artefacts like the coin itself, and in the memories of those who lived through her reign.

To quote the famous couplet from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18:

“So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”

You can order the Shakespeare Coins direct from the Royal Mint.