Shakespeare & I: The Bard’s Inspiration

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.

How Shakespeare Is Like The World Wide Web

Shakespeare & the World Wide Web

Shakespeare & the World Wide Web

Shakespeare would have enjoyed the explosion that the English language has experienced with the invention of the Internet because he was fascinated with language. His own influence on the English language cannot be over-estimated, with his invention of new words, new ways of using words and his metaphorical phrases that have become part of normal or usual English expression. When we talk of achieving several things in one fell swoop, for example, we are talking quite naturally, without realizing that we are quoting Shakespeare, nor that if he had never created that image it would not be an everyday part of the English language. If we cut a finger and someone tells us that our hand is all bloody we are using, not only an adjective that Shakespeare created from the noun ‘blood’ but also the principle that Shakespeare established, that adding a ‘y’ to almost any noun will create a new way of describing something – for example ‘dirty,’ ‘seedy,’ ‘flowery,’ etc. And if Shakespeare needed to refer to something for which there was no word he would simply make one up – for example, ‘multitudinous,’ and ‘incarnadine.’

Those who are developing the Internet are doing exactly what Shakespeare did, in their need to make a common Internet language so that we can all understand what we’re talking about when we’re talking about the net. Just like Shakespeare, they are using several language development techniques. One of the techniques is to adapt existing words, resulting in changed meanings for those words. For example, the word ‘worm’ which, when used in the context of the Internet, means a virus that does not infect other programs, although it may install or destroy files. That is something that might have confused Shakespeare because the word has subsequently taken on a new usage and therefore has a new meaning. But he would have recognised the term ‘Trojan Horse’ because the concept is still the one that would have been familiar to him. He would have thought of the war ruse that the Greeks used – hiding warriors in a wooden horse and then emerging once the horse had been taken through the city gates. In Internet terms a Trojan Horse is a computer program that is either hidden inside another program or that masquerades as something it is not, in order to trick potential users into running it. It’s a brilliant name for that phenomenon.

Another kind of Internet language development is to create entirely new phrases, some of which would be utterly meaningless to Shakespeare, such as broadband speed test and Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) but there are others whose meaning he would have been able to work out, such as ‘American Standard Code for Information Interchange’ (ASCII) and, perhaps, ‘walled garden,’ a lovely phrase that refers to a closed or exclusive set of information services provided for subscribing users.

As for new words, we have the entirely new ‘to google’, used as a verb. It’s a transitive verb, as we don’t just google, we google something specific. There is also the new ‘app,’ presumably derived from the word ‘application.’ And there are a lot more.

In all these cases the language development we are witnessing is exactly the same process as we find in the works of Shakespeare – when language is required to describe something existing language is used to give it a new meaning, or a word or phrase is adapted for new usage, and sometimes a new word is invented. It is possible that the Internet will have as profound an effect on the English language as Shakespeare did.

What’s In A Name? “Shakespere” & Top Shop

What’s in a name? Shakespeare by any other name would surely smell as sweet!

The big Shakespeare news in the UK yesterday was red faces all round at leading high street retailer Top Shop, when they realised they’d spelled Shakespeare’s name incorrectly on a t-shirt. The women’s fashion item went on sale online and at stores across the UK printed with the misspelling ‘Shakespere’. Apparently on being told of the error a company spokeswoman gave the quote “Oh my god!”

However, anyone who’s read this article on how Shakespeare’s name was spelled will appreciate that the spelling in Shakespeare’s day was flexible…and was even spelled the same way as TopShop’s “incorrect” effort. So, maybe they’re not so stupid after all!

Here’s the offending article:

topshop & shakespeare

TopShop’s “Shakespere” T Shirt

After a Shakespere (or even a Shakespeare!) tshirt? Check out our very own Shakespeare shop, selling everything from books to lego Shakespeare men.

Is It Hip Hop Or Shakespeare?

A quick pop quiz for you, do you think the quotes below words are from a hip hop track or Shakespeare play?

  1. “To destroy the beauty from which one came”
  2. “Maybe it’s hatred I spew, maybe it’s food for the spirit”
  3. “Men would rather use their broken records than their bare hands”
  4. “I was not born under a rhyming planet”
  5. “The most benevolent king communicates through your dreams”
  6. “Socrates, philosophy and hypotheses can’t define me”

Answers are at the bottom of this post…and may surprise you! The examples are taken from the extraordinary talk MOBO award-winning Akala from the Hip Hop Shakespeare Company gives to TedTalk. In the gripping 20 minute talk Akala talks iambic pentameter, gives sonnet 18 – “shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” – a hip hop makeover and explores the connections between Shakespeare and hip hop.


Pop quiz answers:

  1. Hip hop: Jay-Zee
  2. Hip hop: Eminem
  3. Shakespeare: Othello
  4. Shakespeare: Much Ado About Nothing
  5. Hip hop: Wu-Tang Clan
  6. Hip hop:  Wu-Tang Clan
Hip hop Shakespeare

Hip hop Shakespeare

Learning Shakespeare
Learning Shakespeare

Learning Shakespeare

I recently came across a story I wrote some time ago: it was in an anthology of  short stories intended for study by GCSE English students in the UK. It was a strange feeling to see it there, accompanied by questions about it and points for discussion. That a story, written for the pleasure and entertainment of its readers, asking only that they should make a personal emotional response to it, had been turned into the subject of an academic exercise seemed somehow ridiculous. I felt that it had demeaned the story, which had become a cold object, not the thing I had written.

“Learning” Shakespeare, poems, plays and works of fiction is a relatively new phenomenon.  We study those works now and our teachers award us marks for the things we have learnt about the works we study. We go further as well – we study Elizabethan and Jacobean dramas, written for performance only, as though they were works of literature. Shakespeare’s plays fall into the category of literature now, whereas there was probably nothing further from his mind as he turned them out for performance on a stage. He had a go at writing poems: there are the sonnets and a few epic poems, and he probably aspired to being a poet as writing poetry was one of the marks of a gentleman and that’s probably how he wanted to be regarded. But the cold reality is that Shakespeare was basically a hack and all his energy went into the urgent and exhausting job of making plays.

When he arrived in London he found himself in the middle of a blossoming theatre industry and he probably just fell into writing plays, as that’s where the money was – and it was big money, given London’s insatiable appetite for that particular form of entertainment.  He worked furiously at it, turning out several plays a year. He wasn’t able to supply the demand for the theatres with which he was associated singlehanded, and there were scores of writers, all crafting plays. Some of their work has lasted but there were many more who were never heard of again. Shakespeare was just one of them, grinding away in a play factory. Indeed, we would not even have heard of him if it hadn’t been for a couple of enterprising actors who redeemed his plays and collected them in the famous First Folio. And he wrote twice as many plays as those we know about. Unfortunately many of his products have been lost forever.

Although the public loved watching plays the men who were associated with the theatre were regarded as a low form of life. The Jacobean poet, John Donne, has given us some remarkable dramatic poems but he never tried writing a play. He was a poet and a gentleman and would never have dreamt of involving himself in such a disreputable activity. The same is true of Edmund Spencer and Sir Philip Sydney, both gentlemen. They were producing ‘literature:’ Shakespeare and his colleagues were making plays – which were all disposable after they had been performed. The big thing was to keep new plays coming: there were no revivals of plays that had been discarded and that’s one of the reasons that so much of the ‘golden age’ of English literature has been lost. The plays were something like the pop songs of today – performed, some of them becoming hits, and then disappearing, never to be heard again. Thrown away. Except that we record them with our modern technology so those who want to hear them at a later time can often have access to them.

But Shakespeare is now ‘literature.’ We ‘learn’ him and get marks for writing about his plays. They are on the English syllabus of the schools in almost every country in the world and in very many they are compulsory items. Every Chinese child has to ‘study’ Shakespeare. Just think about that! The plays are in all the universities and even available in distance learning schemes, where you have to read them alone and in silence. It’s highly improbable that Shakespeare ever imagined anyone reading one of his plays. Such an idea was unknown. The only Elizabethan who ever read a play was the stage manager, or prompt, whose job it was to stage the play. Even the actors saw only their own lines, cut out of one of the two copies that there were. One was cut up for the actors and the other was used by the prompt, the man who had to have an oversight of the text, and that was it.

With all the things Shakespeare imagined, all the insights he had, which still guide us in our lives today, something he would not have imagined was that he would become an enduring  giant of ‘literature,’ his disposable plays read and studied by millions of students each year.

Shakespeare Wins Gold at the Olympic Games!

Shakespeare olympicsHappy New Year to all our readers. This is a big year for Shakespeare. It’s not a very well known fact, but Shakespeare played a role in winning the Olympic Games for London. Not only is he the most famous London resident of turn of sixteenth/seventeenth century London but also, according to the results of recent research by The Royal Shakespeare Company and the British Council, the world’s most studied author. About 64 million – half the world’s – school children study his plays and they are a compulsory component of the curriculum in scores of countries, including China, Azerbaijan and Vietnam. The Olympic Committee took Shakespeare’s pre-eminence as a world cultural figure into account when they were considering the bids.

The Committee knew that Shakespeare was going to feature in the Olympic celebrations, and they were right. The Globe Theatre in London will be staging 37 Shakespeare plays in 37 languages, presented by theatre companies from those countries. It is going to be a wonderful feast, and an illustration of how universal Shakespeare’s themes and characters are. An Iraqi company is doing a Romeo and Juliet in which the feuding Montagues and Capulets are transformed into the warring Sunnis and Shias. Tunisia’s Macbeth draws strong parallels with the issues of dictatorship and rebellion that currently mark the Arab Spring. The world’s newest country, South Sudan, is bringing a contribution.

I can’t help thinking about the logistics of it.  Think about all the actors, stage crews and the countless other people involved in theatre production converging on the Globe. There will be thousands. Where will they all stay, for example? And think about all the set changing. And what about the sets themselves? Will they bring them from their own countries or will they be hiring them? Are there enough firms listed as ‘furniture hire, London’ in the Yellow Pages or on Google to satisfy the demand? It is going to be a nightmare.

I have enough confidence in the organisers, however, to think that it will all go smoothly and that everyone will have a good time. We do these things well in London!

Tony Blair, Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the Emperor Nero

What have Hamlet, Tony Blair, H.G. Wells, David Frost, the Emperor Nero, Brian Clough, the White Rabbit and Kenneth Williams got in common? This is an easy one: they’ve all been played by the flavour of the month actor, Michael Sheen. The Welsh actor has played Tony Blair in three films – The Deal, The […]

Can a Monkey Write Better Plays Than Shakespeare?

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Gender On The Shakespeare Stage

Helen Mirren plays the role of Prospero in a new film of The Tempest. In a recent interview with the Huffington Post she said: ‘I played the man role. Shakespeare very often had boys dressed as girls but not so often women dressed as men, but I play it as a woman. I don’t play it as a man.’

That may be so, but Shakespeare intended Prospero to be a man. It is true that one can really do as one likes with a Shakespeare play as long as one sticks to the text, and anything that one does throws new light on the text for the generation in which it’s done. However, although in his time Shakespeare was forced to use boys to perform female roles, he was very clear about whether his characters were male or female.

Helen Mirren is confused. When she says that Shakespeare very often had boys dressed as girls she is not altogether right. Shakespeare always had boys dressed as girls in plays with female characters, and every one of his plays had female characters. He was forced to use boys as it was against the law for girls and women to appear on the stage. But each role was clearly either male or female.

Shakespeare was unconcerned about having to use boys to play women and went ahead and wrote the roles as though women were going to perform in them. Think about Juliet and her authentic teenage girl’s passion. And in Antony and Cleopatra, often referred to as the greatest love story ever told, Cleopatra is female through and through, from her passion, through her flirting and sexual scheming, to her ability to make all men fall in love with her, a quality absolutely authentically portrayed in the text.

Shakespeare tried to neutralize the effect at times, however. He took advantage of the theatrical convention of using disguises. In some plays a character would start dressed as a woman and then disguise herself as a boy or a man, which would enable the actor to be a convincing male throughout most of the play. He would then be revealed as a woman and act out the last part of the final scene as a woman. Clever.

There is no real reason for the selection of Helen Mirren to play Prospero, apart from the fact that she has a huge fan base and will therefore bring in the money. But, as she says, ‘It would just give a new take on the relationships in the play. Shakespeare is such an extraordinary writer — you can do all kinds of things with him and the core of the piece stays strong, but you do get different reverberations through the play.’ That’s true, and it’s a testament to the genius of Shakespeare that whatever you do doesn’t ruin the play – it adds new insights for that particular generation. And that will go on for as long as the English language exists.