Reading a play like a novel. Hamlet (Shakespeare) and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead (Tom Stoppard)

Stories come to us in so many ways – through our eyes as printed or electronic type, through our ears whether broadcast or podcast – through eyes and ears in stage, TV, video, film productions. And some of these ‘deliveries’ can be paused while we reflect, check back or take a break. Others plough ahead whether they have our attention or not, their story’s momentum continues in their time, not ours. So is it possible to read a playscript as one reads a novel? Does reading a play’s script improve the experience of watching it? And if it does, is it better to read a script before or after seeing the play?

These questions were on my mind while I pursued the theme I started to follow when I read Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet. In that novel she contends that Shakespeare gave his dead son fresh life in the character of Hamlet, as well as creating a memorial to Hamnet. I last read Hamlet when I was at school, and was amused this week that the copy I picked from the shelf at home was one my daughter had bought and used while studying for her A levels. But is Hamlet the man Shakespeare would like his son to have become? I can’t answer that question, Shakespeare gave Hamlet both determination to do the right thing, and difficulty in deciding what that right thing should be. He famously didn’t give him a happy resolution to his quandaries.

At first I checked my reading at unfamiliar words and consulted the footnotes, but soon found that the flow of dialogue made most of the meaning clear. And so many of the phrases are familiar – if Shakespeare truly intended the play to create a memorial for his son, then its language has been a lasting one, in almost every scene I recognised an idiom or expression that is in common use today. Did I read the play like a novel? Eventually, yes – but as a novel I’d heard abbreviated into a radio play, the outlines of the plot and characters were familiar, only details could surprise.

I read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead on my Kindle. While I read, I saw again the Old Vic production that I’d watched, streamed to a local cinema, in 2017. Daniel Radcliffe played Rosencrantz, Joshua McGuire Guildenstern and David Haig was the Player King. I saw their faces as I read their parts; and saw them against the set in that production. So I didn’t read the script as a novel, I read it both as a reminder of watching a drama – and as an extension to that drama. The recent reading of Hamlet gave more context to the modern play than my hazy memory had done; and being able to pause, and also to read Stoppard’s stage directions, reinforced detail I’d missed. As I watched the play I (of course) developed a strong sympathy for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, that emotion flooded back when I started to read the script, so I was immersed in the narrative faster.

For me the tragedy of the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is that they have no past, and no future; they have only each other, and no one else to either care for or be cared for by. The coin tossing, and which-hand-guessing, pointless pastimes while they can do nothing to affect events, is given further poignancy in our present Covid isolation. And the violation of the laws of chance emphasises their isolation from any familiar world.

Is it possible to read a playscript as one reads a novel? That’s not what happened with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead, but for both plays reading the script provided an emotional experience, beyond simply following the story of what happened next. Does reading the script enhance watching the play? It did this time. And will I reread these two scripts? I hope so: both use language in interesting ways, both evoke emotional responses, both are witty. And both required me to concentrate to follow them.

About lifelonglearner

Teacher in Southern England enthusiastic about exploring ways to learn and teach, and evangelistic about sharing them. Specialism is Physics, but that's just a useful starting point.
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