Brawling with the Bard: Reading Shakespeare in 2014
“We brawling tonight?” It’s the question that pops up once a week on the Bard Brawl Facebook page.
What exactly is a “Bard Brawl”? In the summer of 2009, two self-proclaimed literature geeks from Concordia University in Montreal decided to start a Shakespeare book club where members take turns performing the words as if on stage.
One of those geeks is Daniel Rowe. He started the group with co-founder Eric Jean. “We grabbed copies of Coriolanus. My wife Stephanie E.M. Coleman joined in, and [we] read an act per week with friends joining as we [went].”
Each week the group meets and reads one act of a play or a major section in a long poem.
Over the past four years, members—who refer to each other as brawlers—have come and gone, and remain immortalized on their website. People join because they are curious, because they love Shakespeare, or, as occasionally occurs, because they are dragged along by a friend. As Daniel says, how often does one have the opportunity to read or hear, “Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war,” and “Reason not the need,” with power and truth?
“The stories and characters are known, but people really want to see who they are and know how the plots move,” says Daniel. It places you in time and space, in relation to everyone else that has come across the Bard. Yes, there are some people who refuse to read upon first arrival but the group has learned how best to handle those situations, “we give them [Soldier] 1 or something, and then they're reading Lear in a month.”
Some of that reluctance might come from the fact that Shakespeare was writing approximately 400 years ago. The language can be tough and as Daniel points out, “People [...] are often turned off by the educational style [in which] the plays are taught.” Some teachers are able to pull their students into Shakespeare’s world while others make the words less accessible, according to Daniel, putting them up on a pedestal where not respecting the line breaks is tantamount to treason. “They forget that it was popular entertainment and meant to be engaged as such. You don't need to know Harold Bloom's critique of the existentialism of Hamlet to get a sword fight.”
For the Brawlers, that’s the great thing about Shakespeare. It’s about pop culture. It is meant to be physical, dramatic, playful and exciting. It is incredible that, “[the] themes remain universal,” says Daniel. “It's crazy really. We often take a play and refer it to a modern scenario. Eric thought Henry VI, Part I would work if all the characters wore hockey jerseys. I thought Ralph Fiennes' Coriolanus was great in the former Yugoslavia.” Like any classic, great writing helps it stick.
There are, however, a few plays that the brawlers shy away from: Romeo and Juliet, Taming of the Shrew and Midsummer Night's Dream. The co-founders groan every year when a local theatre company decides to put on one of the three, which, as Daniel points out, they always do.
But how do they choose which of the Bard’s works to tackle next? “Usually we just look around and point to someone and say, ‘You. Pick.’” says Daniel. Othello is a favourite of both Daniel and Eric’s but it has yet to be read by the group. Daniel admits they are very excited but are waiting to read it “when the time is right.”
For those interested in exploring Shakespeare but don’t know where to start, Daniel suggests reading Twelfth Night, Julius Caesar, Much Ado About Nothing or Othello. Most people are familiar with these stories and so the reading will be about acquainting yourself with the structure, style, and language.
And why not follow the Brawlers lead and read Shakespeare aloud! You might feel weird walking around your living room reciting, “Fie, Fie! Unknit that threatening, unkind brow,” to the blank wall, but that is what The Bard Brawl is about. Breaking down the awkwardness, exploring the rhythms, the language, and the stories in a space where no one cares if you mispronounce “cerement” (the waxed cloth for wrapping a corpse) or “wassail” (the drink or caroling).
When asked for some final words of wisdom, Daniel says, “The more you read, see, and listen, the more you understand. Read Richard III's opening soliloquy and you'll be hooked.” He memorized it when he was 16.
Are you involved in a Shakespeare book club? Do you attempt to re-enact his plays with accuracy? Let us know! Send us an email at canadawrites [@] cbc.ca and tell us what you do and why Shakespeare’s writing still draws you into the pages of the plays and sonnets.
Artwork credit in order of appearance:
Stephanie E.M. Coleman. The war of the roses features in over half a dozen of Shakespeare’s history plays. Coleman designed this while the brawlers were pounding out Henry VI, part I.
Stephanie E.M. Coleman. Coleman designed this while the brawlers were going through the Tragedy of Coriolanus. The design was done in charcoal on paper.
Leigh Macrae. The image was inspired by the Taming of the Shrew. Macrae’s design was done with a pen and photoshopped by Stephanie E.M. Coleman.