The Bard- still electrifying after 400 years
My first encounter with Shakespeare must have been when I was around age 6, when I was given a picture book of ‘Romeo and Juliet’. In theory it should have engaged me and captured my interest, with its comic strip approach and the option to select different outcomes (choose your own story books were popular at the time) but I just couldn’t understand why two young people would want to kill themselves or why their families were so mean- but I guess that was kind of the point! Without realising, I had grasped the key to any reading of Shakespeare: injustice, unfairness and the devastation that can follow as a result of prejudice or corruption. I did enjoy being able to select different courses and seeing how choices could influence different outcomes ( again this puts us in the shoes of director- whose interpretations influence the meaning a particular performance imparts to its viewers) which again must have planted an understanding of one of the key strengths of Shakespeare’s works: their ambiguity and adaptability.
Fast forward to my 14th year on this earth: that painful teen period that we have all gone through. All angst, full of hormones and struggling to work out who you are and your place in the world you see before you. A shining light was my GCSE English class. Here a deep love of books and a burgeoning realisation that analysis could unlock untold meaning and understanding was fluttering into existence. ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ had already tapped into our collective taste for the unjust and unfair. ‘Macbeth’ swiftly followed and capitalised on this enthusiasm and our secret desire to put right our own injustices and to triumph, in the midst of all our unspoken and unshared insecurities. What better introduction to Shakespeare than a power-driven couple on a path to self-destruction. Corrupt, bloody, murderous, dark and brooding. Here we had writ large, the consequences of choices and actions driven by such senses of unfairness and injustice that we ourselves were feeling. Macbeth encouraged us to look beyond our own feelings and consider those of others- that reflection had to outweigh any desires or drives we had to put things right. Essentially that there was a right way to go about things: that you don’t have to kill people that get in your way (that last part is a joke, for those that don’t know me). Along the way, we learnt about irony and insanity, the power of language to convey a whole host of meaning if the right words are selected and not to be afraid of archaic language. We learnt that we could each interpret a passage or phrase in slightly differing ways and that listening to each other could allow us to reach even greater insights, or see things our own experiences had not yet brought to us. We loved the eerie spell cast over the play by the malign influence of the witches; how their passages were much more lyrical than that of other characters and held us in sway much like the effect that they roused in terms of the plot (thus introducing us to the concept of layers of meaning). We were absorbed by the psychology abundant in the text- discussion on motivations were electrifying. Hallucinations became outward manifestations of conscience: ‘is this a dagger I see before me’ and ‘out damned spot’ being two key phrases that grabbed us. We wondered how Shakespeare could have understood such psychological symptoms so long ago, before the advent of modern psychology- thus holding him in a new sense of respect and reverence removed from our initial disdain. No longer was he a fusty, archaic figure but one who fired us up and excited us. In fairness, our teacher must have been some genius/director managing to orchestrate all of this. Her knowledge, insight and passion for her subject was passed on to all of us lucky recipients. It could have been very different if we had studied ‘Romeo and Juliet’ or ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ at this point: she knew that we needed the gore, drama and horror of ‘that Scottish play’ to get the point of Shakespeare. She knew her audience and she knew her writers! Thanks Mrs Hiskens, wherever you are.
Having had an English teacher such as Mrs H, it will come as no surprise that I signed up for A Level English! Rebellion and indifference were key facets of my outward expression to the world, yet in books I was allowed access to a rich and fertile plain: here I could see beyond my own experiences into the thoughts and experiences of others. This is something that those who are not keen readers may miss out on and it remains an ardent belief of mine, that to give others the gift of reading gives them to key to understanding themselves and the world that they live in. Books help us to understand that we are not imprisoned: feelings and situations can be changed. Studying Shakespeare, again, was a master-key that helped me unlock my own personal propensity for reflection: ‘Hamlet’ being the game changer. He is the ultimate, disaffected youth struggling with his grief and behaviour from responsible adults that he does not yet understand. He is plagued by his Mothers’ speedy remarriage to his Uncle Claudius, after the death of his beloved father also Hamlet (deceased King). I am sure a lot of teens can relate to his depressed melancholy, and indeed having to adapt to new family situations that they are not happy with. What was surprising, to me anyway, was the consideration that it had always been thus: the modern family may not be so modern after all (again drawing my burgeoning understanding and appreciation of the big Bard to who is universality- speaking to all across time and experience). Here I learnt the appreciation of staging and a carefully timed plot device- what more dramatic start can there be than a ghost luring soldiers across a cold, isolated battlement on a starless night? It gives me chills just thinking about it! This eerie portent, not only focuses its audiences attention by heightening their senses but by also causing us to question why a ghost might need to appear? All is clearly not right and we are set firmly to question all events put before us. My teen eyes alighned me squarely with Hamlet’s sense of indignation and allowed me to gloss over his own selfish actions- he shuns poor Ophelia who is then driven mad to end up floating face-down in a pool of flowers. It is not until much later ( a re-reading at university) that I grasped the true art of Shakespeare’s multi-faceted writing: Hamlet too was an orchestrator of destruction because he only thinks of himself (stereotypical selfish-teen behaviour). So here we have a tragedy filled with flawed characters that will speak to different members of its audience in different ways, at different points in their lives AND in different eras: mind blown. No wonder the plays hold such universal and enduring appeal. No wonder directors can draw such different things out of them. No wonder he still holds court 400 years later.
But then, he has always held court. While he deserves to be revered for his linguistic and literary mastery: for his beautiful prose and dramatic ability, he also should be recognised as an extremely savvy pioneer- or as one Lecturer facetiously referred to him as ‘a Brummie on the make’! A bit like a Richard Branson of his day, he recognised an opportunity to make money and he seized it- setting up a collective to perform plays outside the boundaries of the city, to circumvent strict censorship- culminating in the founding of ‘The Globe’ theatre. Opinions of Shakespeare continue to ebb and flow, evolving to their contextual perameters. To me he is a brilliant, subversive pioneer full of insight and word play and wit- something I only truly comprehended once I began honing my analysis at undergraduate level. Here contextual understandings added a new layer of meaning to my interpretations. I appreciated Shakespeare’s comedies all the more, because I saw that they allowed greater subversion of extant social mores, thus enabling audiences to question the structures within which they existed. The Fool in ‘King Lear’ becomes wise, when considered this way. The cross-dressing confusion and displacement in ‘Twelfth Night’ allows us to question the identity and position of those in society: does their position mean we should blindly accept them and follow their word without question? Here Malvolio (my favourite comic character) postulates round like some self-important social climber misenterpreting a letter from his mistress to be encoded to express her secret love for him, causing him to proclaim; ‘some of us are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em’ to no doubt raucous effect on the audience of the time! It’s bawdy thrusting would have implied a sexual element to his meaning, further undermining his ardent declarations. All of the layers of humour, draw the audience into a conspiratorial understanding of the true meaning behind the words- that we shouldn’t feel limited by the position in society, from which we are born into. Like Shakespeare, we can overcome the cultural imperialism that still abounds today (look at the ridiculous insistence that the Department of Education has today that Primary children MUST know parts of speech, such as subordinate clauses, or they will not meet the required grade or are somehow lesser because they don’t- like that is a measure of your ability to write or communicate) we can use our initiative, work hard, be creative, NOT conform. We can have a goal and find our own way there. What this phrase conveys to this audience (or any audience) is the ridiculousness of these perameters, within which we are judged and constrained. We all need to bust loose.
This complexity, and ability to frame ideas in such a clever and probing way, is precisely why I love the great Bard in the sky above all over writers. I could tell you about the many things I have learnt from studying his plays and sonnets over the years- but this would detract from the overall point. Don’t listen to people who assuage him as a boring, irrelevant, fusty, archaic relic (Google theories of his dark lady or gay lover). Don’t let a bad first experience of his work put you off- you may have been put off by being introduced to a particular play at the wrong time in your life, or by someone who was not the masterful director I was fortunate to have. No, get out there and WATCH a performance or DVD of one of his works, because after all they were written to be performed and this is how you will understand them best. Don’t delay, you are missing out on Magic. He is a paragon of Englishness- but not in the way the real fusty, stuffy, archaic ‘members’ of our society would like to impart. He is a rebel, an innovator, a creative genius and someone that allows us all to open our minds and to question. All this 400 years later. William Shakespeare, I salute you.