An Interview with Gideon Rappaport

The scholar explains what we’ve gotten wrong about Hamlet — and why Shakespeare is for everyone.

An Interview with Gideon Rappaport

Gideon Rappaport has immersed himself in William Shakespeare for more than 45 years, teaching the Bard’s works at multiple institutions and serving as dramaturge for Shakespearean productions at North Coast Rep, San Diego Rep, California Shakes, the Old Globe, and numerous other theaters. He brings his vast knowledge of the canonical Brit to William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a fully annotated edition of one of the English language’s most iconic plays.

You’ve said that William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is “intended as a radical restoration of the moral and spiritual meaning of the dramatic throughline of the play.” Can you elaborate?

Sure. Though it is one of Shakespeare’s greatest and most beloved plays, Hamlet has been much misunderstood — mostly because audience assumptions about the nature of reality have undergone huge changes between Shakespeare’s time and ours. Working under those different assumptions, some unconscious and some driven by Romantic, Freudian, neo-Marxist, postmodern, and other ideologies, modern scholars, play directors, and film producers have often wrenched Shakespeare’s play out of its intended meaning, obscuring what the play is really about and leaving audiences and readers perplexed. It is not a play “about a man who could not make up his mind”; or who is in Oedipal love with his mother; or who is an existentialist relativist; or who is mad; or who is cruel to his girlfriend and schoolfriends; or who thinks too much to act; or who is abused by an “oppressive power structure.” My edition makes clear that the dramatic throughline of the play is the story of a man who, in a dangerous and paradoxical moral situation — which stands for the situation of every one of us — becomes guilty of a tragic moral fall and then undergoes a spiritual turning leading to redemption.

While this book focuses on Hamlet, do you consider other Shakespeare plays in need of similar “restoration,” or at least a better understanding?

Absolutely. I decided to produce an edition of Hamlet because it seemed to need that degree of thoroughness to make my case stick. But several other plays need corrective attention. I’d say especially The Merchant of Venice, Measure for Measure, and King Lear, as well as the character of Prince Hal in the history plays. I’ve addressed these and other plays in my book Appreciating Shakespeare, which I highly recommend for anyone looking for user-friendly help in coming to appreciate the meanings in Shakespeare’s works.

You’ve taught Shakespeare everywhere from high school to graduate school and beyond. What have you learned over the years about how different age groups respond to the Bard?

The most important thing to know is that every age group responds intensely and positively to the experience of Shakespeare’s works if they are presented in ways appropriate to the age group. The worst thing to do is to underestimate the ability of audiences to respond to the power and meaning of Shakespeare’s poetry, which leads to dumbing down and consequent boredom. A little of the right kind of preparation goes a long way, and most people’s fear of Shakespeare arises, I’m sorry to say, from having had mediocre English teachers in school. Of course, different age groups will “get” Shakespeare at different levels because of their varying degrees of life experience. But no matter your age, if you are a human being, Shakespeare will speak deeply to you if you give him a chance to do so in his own way.

Despite their ubiquity, Shakespeare’s works can be extremely intimidating. Which ones would you recommend to someone first taking the plunge? (And please don’t say Titus Andronicus.)

I wouldn’t plunge anyone into Titus. But, as I’ve said, the intimidation comes mostly from poor preparation. Shakespeare will win anyone over who gives him a chance. The classic order for schoolkids would be Romeo and Juliet in ninth grade, Macbeth in 10th, Julius Caesar or Othello in 11th, and Hamlet in 12th. For the general audience, I would recommend beginning with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, and maybe The Tempest (so long as they promise to return to The Tempest again later in life). After that, Henry IV, Part I will provide irresistible entertainment. And from then on, read it all. Or better, see live performances in productions done by competent acting companies. Shakespeare, if well-acted, is irresistible to nearly everyone.

What’s next for you?

Thanks for asking. I have a book coming out [February 28th] called Shakespeare’s Rhetorical Figures: An Outline, which lists all of Shakespeare’s over 200 figures of speech in outline form, with definitions and Shakespearean examples of each, along with a glossary and pronunciation guide cross-referenced to the outline. I am also preparing a collection of various talks I’ve given and book and film reviews I’ve written, and I’m writing a rather philosophical book on some of the universal paradoxes of human life. People can also access a variety of my lectures on YouTube at “Shakespeare’s Real Take” and can hear my podcast, “Appreciating Shakespeare with Doctor Rap,” on Buzzsprout.

Holly Smith is editor-in-chief of the Independent. She likes to think even Shakespeare didn’t always understand Shakespeare.

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