Last week I was approached by Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s “Happy Birthday Shakespeare” project to write a blog piece on what Shakespeare means to me. The goal of their project is to gather bloggers from all around the world to share how Shakespeare has influenced/touched their life, to help celebrate his birthday on April 23rd. So, here’s my bash at a piece…
One of the actors in the Iraqi Theatre Company’s production of Romeo and Juliet, opening at the Swan Theatre this week as part of the World Shakespeare Festival, said in a radio interview, ‘Shakespeare is an Iraqi.’ He went on to say that he is also an African. Shakespeare is global in the twenty-first century, and the Festival is celebrating that. He has not only entered into the cultures of all the world but into the souls of their individuals.
In my years of teaching I often challenged students to name one human situation that Shakespeare didn’t address. Apart from the obvious explorations of love, death and war the subsequent discussions covered such topics as terrorism, abduction, foreign invasion, racialism, anti-Semitism, social injustice –things that seem so contemporary to us. Moreover, in every case the observations he made defined those themes once and for all. Not only that but he provided the language necessary to talk and think about them for ever after. It’s a great pity that politicians ignore his convincing demonstrations of the futility of war, the hurt suffered by those who have to endure discrimination, the destructiveness of social division and so on.
In that sense Shakespeare touches all of our lives. As for myself, I owe the very language I speak and the way I think about things to Shakespeare. When we stop to consider, there is no doubt that the richness of the English language – its idiom and rhythm – is in large part due to Shakespeare. No single individual has had such an influence on the development of modern English and it’s impossible to contemplate the idea of his never having existed.
While reading Shakespeare and speaking his words, I am struck with the realisation that what is unique about him as a writer is that unlike other writers he doesn’t describe an emotion or refer to it – the word is the emotion and I feel the emotion in the word. My favourite of all of Shakespeare’s lines is when Iras sums up the desperate feeling of loss when Cleopatra’s court hears of Antony’s supposed death: “the bright day is done/And we are for the dark”. Not only is it beautiful but it takes you right inside the dark desolation of such a loss. And in Measure for Measure as I read Claudio’s words when appealing to his sister for help on the night before his execution I am myself in death row:
“to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods.”
In my early teaching days I attended several of the workshops that Cic Berry, who was the Royal Shakespeare Company’s voice coach, ran for teachers. She used several activities that drew teachers into the emotions when speaking the words. The experience was very intense. I later met and worked with Rex Gibson, the director of the Shakespeare and Schools Project, which was set up to explore and develop the kind of methods used by Cis Berry, to be used in the classroom. Knowing Rex and working with him was a huge honour and he has been the main influence in my Shakespeare life and work.
Shakespeare is with me all the time. No day goes by without my consulting him automatically and unconsciously as I go about the business of life.