I wrote last year about the first Shapiro lecture I attended at the Sam Wanamaker theatre, when I was terribly excited to hear his next book would be on 1606, Jacobean London. Shapiro’s latest talk accompanied the launch of said book, and to open his talk he humorously positioned the book on the stage behind him ‘in case I forget anything.’
As before, Shapiro did not have a pre-prepared speech; he simply took questions from the audience. The first: why 1606? Shapiro said that academics tended to ‘divide up Shakespeare’ within their department to ‘before Hamlet and after Hamlet. Because no one wants to give up Hamlet.’ Having taught ‘before Hamlet’ for many years, he humbly protested: ‘I needed to know more about that time.’
Asked about a Freudian interpretation of King Lear, he replied: ‘I live back then;’ he expanded this to say that a contemporary audience member didn’t see Lear in this way, and though Freud and others provided interesting interpretations, that wasn’t where his interest was. He pointed out that the 1600 version (‘Leir’) ended happily, and so for Shakespeare to change the ending so dramatically was akin to a theatre-goer now turning up to Pride and Prejudice and seeing Darcy and Elizabeth hit by a truck during their final embrace.
On Shakespeare the man, Shapiro argued we can never know, because far too much is lost. Any scholars who do begin to assume what he was like, he noted, were merely giving their own autobiography, and their versions of Shakespeare tell us far more about themselves than about him.
The most interesting utterance to me as a teacher was to hear that Shapiro ‘hated Shakespeare’ at school. The reason for this? ‘I didn’t get it. I didn’t get Romeo and Juliet. I didn’t even get the dirty bits.’ Although Shapiro does focus on context in his work, and in placing the plays and the playwright in their time, the other focus he drew out in his talk was understanding: if we can understand the words, and take our students to brilliant productions where they understand the words, that will hook them into Shakespeare. Shapiro works with a prison theatre group on Rikers island in Chicago, and they put on Shakespeare productions in original language. He mentioned talking briefly to the audience of inmates before each production and being asked the same two questions – ‘how many plays did Shakespeare write?’ and ‘is he still alive?’ This latter question contextualises the literary awareness of the inmates, and yet he notes that they engage with the plays vibrantly, citing a moment when Hero in Much Ado faints and an inmate yelling out: ‘she’s down!’
Such an anecdote is inspiring and comforting. We don’t need to ‘dumb down’ Shakespeare for our classes – we just need to understand every word ourselves (no easy feat) so we can lead our students through it and ensure they too can react and enjoy the plays as they have been enjoyed for hundreds of years.