Shapiro at the Sam Wanamaker: 2nd October 2015

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.

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Stanley Wells at the Globe

Every English graduate in the world has heard of Stanley Wells, if only for his “Complete Oxford Shakespeare” we were all encouraged to purchase prior to first year. Having been blown away by James Shapiro months earlier, I was keen to enjoy another of the Globe’s “Shakespeare at 450” lectures.

Introduced by the Globe’s education director, Patrick Spottiswoode, as a man who has chosen to “dedicate his life to serving Shakespeare” as well, hyperbolically perhaps but no less entertainingly, as “Shakespeare’s ambassador on earth,” Wells shirked all aplomb with a pithy: “you’re so plosive,” in response.

The topic of the lecture was a run through of the greatest Shakespearean actors (“from Burbage to Brannagh,” as the trailed book will be named). The joy of a great academic is that, though I hadn’t initially thought this was of interest, Wells made it of interest; his talk encompassed so much more than this.

Quoting Laurence Olivier, who as you might expect made a number of appearances in the talk, Wells explained he had limited his exploration to stage actors, rather than film as: “film is the director’s medium, television the writer’s, and stage the actor’s.”

On “colourblind” and “gender blind” productions, of which there is a long theatrical history, Wells posited that the heightened style of Shakespeare’s poetic drama allows greater diversity of interpretation: if the audience is prepared to accept actors talking in verse, they are more likely to accept other differences.

According to Wells, great Shakespearean actors manipulate their bodies and their voices. Olivier was especially noted for seeking to allow the external presentation to reveal the inner, such as his “false face” when playing Macbeth (we were told his wife, Vivien Leigh, had commented of the intensely thick make-up: “first you hear Macbeth’s line, then Larry’s make-up comes on, then Banquo comes on, then Larry comes on”). They also allow for an emotional distance while playing – they need to inhabit the character, but also be half-aware of the responses of the audience to ensure they do not speak over laughter or applause, for example. He cited plentiful examples in Shakespeare of actors giving acting advice; Hamlet most notably, but also Coriolanus (when overcome with passion he cries: “like a dull actor now, I have forgot my part”). Great actors can project their understanding and inhabitance of the inner life of the character with every expression and every articulation.

The chief take-away point in my view was that, although the playwright provides the material, the actors “achieve a different reality” with every performance. They recreate Shakespeare nightly, each time rebuilding an intricate and original representation.

More and more, I worry I am not qualified to teach my year 13 students. As a sixth former myself, I remember being moved in English lessons by the enormity of ideas discussed; I remember knowing that literature was without doubt the centre of the world; I remember being exposed to new words and new ideas daily. Years of practice training students to pass (often poorly created, unchallenging) exams has not made me a great teacher of the A-level. I wonder if I am alone in considering that if only more such academic lectures were available for English teachers to attend, we could re-engage with the critical community, and find our joy, passion and all-fulfilling reason in literature again.

Shapiro at the Sam Wanamaker

Having reflected last week at Wellington Festival on my lack of departmental emphasis on subject knowledge, a visit to one of the Globe’s Shakespeare at 450 lectures was well-timed to put my mind at ease. I think we are blessed in English departments across the land to be able to expand our subject knowledge at leisure; certainly, all the English teachers I have met read plentifully, visit theatres and yes – attend lectures.

Arriving, as is my wont, incredibly early, I realized too late that I was standing next to the man himself – a Brooklyn accent caught my ear, and before I knew it he was being whisked into the room. A fellow nerd looked over to me, and I saw my own ridiculous grin reflected in his. “He was right there!” we murmured to each other, in a life-affirming exchange that should warm the hearts of Shakespeare geeks everywhere.

And for the non-Shakespeare geeks, who is Shapiro? Well, he’s fast becoming the celebrity literary critic du jour. Shakespeare will always be in fashion, and Shapiro has maximized his influence through some blockbuster tomes (1599; Contested Will) as well as notable television appearances. Having seen Shapiro’s recent BBC documentary on The Duchess of Malfi, I was especially excited to view the inside of the Globe’s relatively new indoor theatre, the Sam Wanamaker.

Neither disappointed, though the seats were about as comfortable as you would expect from a theatre created by the Globe. James Shapiro came onto the stage to silence an excited applause with a single hand, before explaining how the evening would go: he had, he said, a lecture prepared; he didn’t want to give that to us. He said he fed off such audiences; he wanted to know what we were interested in and that would drive his scholarship. We could ask him any question, on the condition that we stood to ask it, and it “was actually a question, and not a statement with an inflection at the end.”

And there began an evening of audience members asking any random Shakespeare question, and Shapiro answering it. The audience contained a large American contingent, which is still perplexing me but for which I imagine there is an excellent reason. One questioner asked about the reception of history plays in the US as opposed to the UK; Shapiro notes that only Richard III had been staged with success in the USA. The reason? For the UK, the history plays “are never about the past” – they are about now. They tell us as much about the politics of today as they do the politics of the Jacobeans, or indeed of Bosworth Field. Shapiro went on to advocate the importance of relevant Shakespeare, noting he would like to see a production of King Lear referencing the segmenting of Iraq.

On considering alternative “Globe theatres” (apparently they are all over the world), he noted that in an “increasingly godless age”, these outdoor theatres provide a space for us to “celebrate communally.” He also remarked that we’ve probably got the spec wrong for the current Globe – rather than 100 feet, it was probably 75 feet in width; however, as “we’re all fatter now” he still believed it was an authentic experience.

Exploring the theatre-going audience, Shapiro did some magic maths (London: 200,000 people; capacity of theatre being 1,000 people; number of plays a day/week; discounting for elderly and infants) to show that everybody went to the theatre all the time. He described the Jacobeans as “the most educated theatrical audience ever.” Later stories of interest include Ulysses S. Grant’s being cast as Desdemona in an 1840s Texan production of Othello. Despite not going on to play the part, Shapiro mused over the question of his having so directly explored the “mixed” marriage prior to the civil war.

The central message of Shapiro was that “all of Shakespeare’s plays are infused with the politics of the time”, and that we do him most justice when we also infuse him with our current concerns and politics. Asking the question: how did he walk the political line to not be punished for his representations, Shapiro noted that Shakespeare’s preservation came from “asking questions and not giving answers.”

On the authorship controversy, Shapiro noted that for 99% of Shakespearean scholars it simply does not exist. He noted that his own book on it was actually about “why smart people think dumb things,” and shared his joy at rhetorically beating to a pulp the director of Anonymous at its premiere; also delighting in its box office disaster. Shapiro closed this conversation saying he had written this book to “take one for the team”, writing it so that Shakespeare scholars “don’t have to waste another minute” considering it.

Looking forward to his next book, 1606, he mentioned he had felt uneasy about the “Elizabethanisation” of the age – half of Shakespeare’s output is Jacobean, and yet there are not even any critically acclaimed biographies of this king – we know too little about him and his reign.

A final question pivoted him back to the night’s major issue: how did he feel about “modern vs period Shakespeare”? Shapiro warned against the “fetishization” of Shakespeare – concern with doublets and sword-fighting detracts from what we should be concerned with, which is the lines: “the plays speak not only to the distant past but also to Shakespeare’s moment and also to the moment being staged.” He ended with a call to arms to directors everywhere to be always expanding the number of people interested in Shakespeare and who accept him as a part of their lives.

After this tour de force, the audience left buzzing with enthusiasm about the conversation that had just occurred, for with an audience packed with scholars bowing to a great one, the humility of the speaker had been empowering. I noted as I left the theatre, unaccustomed as I am to venture forth on a weeknight, that Shapiro had moved to the foyer to continue the conversation with individuals who were still milling around. A living critical legend.

Give me that patience, patience I need (or: exams, exams, exams)

Having been the beneficiary of kind timetabling heretofore, the exam season has never affected me in any way greater than my singular class and my worries about those 25-or-so children. Being at the helm of a department with exams across two key stages and three subjects has opened my eyes to the reality of exams – never before in my life have so many forms had to be filled in, in so little time, to so little purpose. My life is coursework administration and exam preparation.

I think I’m one of the last people I know to have seen the much-acclaimed production of King Lear at the National Theatre. Certainly, in the early days of the production, numerous friends were lauding it. I nodded noncommittally, and half-heartedly tried to acquire tickets. It was only when a friend actually had tickets that I decided to go.

Why the lack of Shakespeare excitement? It’s just that I don’t particularly like King Lear. Of all the tragedies, it is my least favourite. It is very far down the list of all of Shakespeare’s plays. I’d never say I hated it, as it is Shakespeare and the language is beautiful; but I studied King Lear for my own A-level English, and was fairly unmoved by it; buying fully into A.C. Bradley’s criticisms that “the number of essential characters is so large, their actions and movements are so complicated, and events towards the close crowd on one another so thickly, that the reader’s attention, rapidly transferred from one centre of interest to another, is overstrained.” Indeed, my first experience of Lear was before attempting even a cursory first reading, finding myself with my A-level classmates in a theatre wondering why in some scenes the white-haired man was blind, and in other scenes he wasn’t.

The production at the National Theatre has altered my perceptions of the play, as the best productions invariably do. Seeing this play invigorated me; half-asleep on entering the theatre on Friday, by the interval I was bouncing around in excitement at the genius of it all. The casting: perfection; the staging: ingenious. Those small details, such as the crew of half-lit beggars roaming around the edges of the stage as Edgar proclaims his intention to become one of their fold, before slipping seamlessly into them. The raised platform on which Lear makes both his most wise pronouncements, and his true descent into madness.

At 17, I knew too little and argued too much, and believed the ending of Lear to be incurably flawed by Edgar’s (partial) assumption of the crown. Here was a character we knew too little of; his meek and unassuming nature was whipped past our eyes at the very beginning, and we are given but few snatches of it in asides through the play. For the majority of the play, he is “Poor Tom,” a mad beggar, and behaves as such. To lend part of the rule of the land to him and to a character we also know little of (apart from poor choice in brides), Albany, seemed to suggest a hopelessness, and complete lack of redemption.

Indeed, in the National’s production, Edgar is foppish and careless in the early scenes, before enormously naïve; he has seemingly few redeeming qualities. Yet it is his very descent into poverty and madness which transforms his nature; like Lear, through misfortune he becomes thoughtful of others; caring; a worthy human of society. The message of this play finally rang out clearly: riches and power will corrupt us, and they may only lead who have understood, and indeed lived, a life of suffering; who may empathise with that suffering.

Moreover, this seemed to me a play about duty: Lear wishes to “shake all cares” of his age and “unburdened crawl toward death”; such abrogation of his duty is duly punished, and mere power without duty is seen to lead to utter chaos and cruelty.

Of all the tragedies, this was revealed to me anew as the one most to do with life and death, good and evil, serving and leading, suffering and healing. The play echoes with calls to nature and the gods, who are both embraced and chastised at differing points. It is monumentally huge.

Why am I writing about this play? It reminded me of why I do what I do. One production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream converted me to a fan of Shakespeare; without it, I might not have been an English teacher. And my life is not exam preparation and coursework administration. I am in it to inspire, and to change minds, and to open up texts to the personal interpretation and joy therein. I want my students to come to the door of my room excited that they will think something new about a text. I need to remember what it is all about.

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Shakespeare Biographies

I didn’t fully appreciate a good biography until after my History masters. During my undergraduate degree studying English Literature, I had leaned towards a “Practical Criticism” approach. All that other stuff was frankly a distraction for 18-22 year old me.

Indeed, the issue of “did-Shakespeare-write-those-plays-or-was-it-some-richer-bloke?” still galls me. I wrote an essay in my second year essentially screaming “DOES IT MATTER?”

And to a certain extent, I stand by that exclamation. After all, we have no uncorrupted copies of any of Shakespeare’s plays, and the extent to which they were even penned by one person is arguable.

The real benefit of biographies is really about context: a biography showing us Shakespeare’s life and the theatre scenes in the London of the 1600s is invaluable for adding that something extra, something contextual, to our reading of the plays. Also, if you’re a teacher, you probably have to teach something about who Shakespeare was. Here are some biographies of Shakespeare I have read and found useful.

Shakespeare: the biography by Peter Ackroyd

ackroydAckroyd’s is my favourite biography, so I’d like to start here. His style is clear and his ideas concise. This biography is especially strong at linking the plays to the life; bringing us to see the precise links between an Elizabethan man and the drama he was likely to produce.

Early on, for example, Ackroyd brings to us the somewhat surprising truth of the decline of the “old values” and the feudal system of patronage, and the rise of a new, specifically secular, economy: this is by no means a world devoid of the Church, but we need to recognise how in flux the institution was; Ackroyd remarks: “what happens when old concepts of faith and authority are usurped, when old ties of patronage and obligation are sundered? It is the transition from Lear to Goneril and Regan, from Duncan to Macbeth.”

While acknowledging prior theatrical history, Ackroyd argues that Shakespeare also “transcended” it: he speaks of “the Vice” character, a stock medieval “anybody” being newly realised in Richard III; and indeed we can see this figure evolve to the Edgar and Iago of later brilliance. Though Ackroyd also contends that: “in the most sublime reaches of Shakespeare’s art there is no morality at all. There is only the soaring human will in consort with the imagination.”

The chapters in this tome are pleasingly brief, which, like all uses of short chapters, aids understanding and can allow this book to be read over a longer period of time.

Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt

Greenblatt is famous among critics as being foundational in the idea of New Historicism: the greenblattnotion that the text is not only affected by its historical context, but that the text also creates and has an impact on that historical context. It has been noted that the theatre was seen as secondary, unimportant, when Shakespeare began writing; only with his career was it seen as something worthy of being printed and esteemed: a clear example of a writer’s impact on his time.

Greenblatt writes in a warm and welcoming style; he is far from the idea many of us have of an esteemed critic. His book takes a thematic, rather than strictly chronological, look at the life and work of his subject. Greenblatt is also rather more willing to include hearsay and unsubstantiated truths, all with massive caveats, which makes for fun reading. In these nuggets there is always a coral of truth: these legends tell us something about what people wanted to believe of their bard. In addition, this biography is the stronger for its assumptions: we know so very little we can be sure of about Shakespeare, there is some necessity to look at the evidence and make a very good guess: for example, taking a truth from an absence, Greenblatt muses: “from this supremely eloquent man, there have been found no love letters to Anne [Hathaway, his wife], no signs of shared joy or grief, no words of advice, not even any financial transactions.”

This freedom allows Greenblatt to imagine many tenuous considerations: how much did Shakespeare revise his work? Did he in fact hate his wife? Did he have a physical affair with the man to whom the sonnets are addressed? Greenblatt’s long affiliation with the Renaissance allows this freedom; he almost inhabits the world himself, and the result is convincing.

The Genius of Shakespeare by Jonathan Bate

bateI believe that this is the most widely read biography of Shakespeare, so perhaps it goes without exploration. Bate opens his text with an assurance that we can know nothing certainly, as well as reassuring us that, even if we did, “an Elizabethan play was a collaborative work that belonged to the theatrical company which performed it every bit as much as to the dramatist who wrote it.”

This text is especially strong in referencing other Shakespearean critics, from his contemporaries up to today, giving a marvelous overview of what “the book people” have thought about him through the ages. This is particularly strong in the chapter regarding the authorship of “Shakespeare”, where we receive a concise survey of that which scholars have posited.

Bate’s major approach is as a pragmatist: he refuses to romaticise Shakespeare, and instead explores the economic and situational prerogatives which drove him to create.

Shakespeare: the invention of the human by Harold Bloom

Is this, or is this not, the best title of a book ever? Ok – I’m cheating, it’s not a biography. I’m bloomsitting here with three remaining Shakespeare biographies thinking… Hm. I’m not sure how great these are. This, on the other hand, I am willing to recommend.

Harold Bloom, if you aren’t in the know, is a monumentally prolific literary critic. He write books on vast swathes of literature, seemingly refusing to specialise, if you go by his printed output. He writes about almost everything. You’ve probably heard of “the anxiety of influence” – that was Bloom’s baby.

This text is superlative among Shakespeare criticism for its ease of reading and its enormous scope. Bloom takes every single play and writes about it, linking each to Shakespeare’s presumed life and known context. Teachers: this is one book which will serve you all your days.

This is very much, though, Bloom’s book; he doesn’t like to reference other critics. Part of its charm comes from the bombast with which he writes, although I can see how readers might love or hate it.

And so I round up my little trip around some Shakespeare biographies, having enjoyed feeling like a student again, if only for a brief moment.

Loving Shakespeare

I am going to confess to something which I am not proud of: at age 15, I proclaimed to my English teacher (the famed Dr Byrne, of whom more later) that Oscar Wilde was a better playwright than William Shakespeare. And I wasn’t being deliberately argumentative, like I usually was.

I just didn’t like Shakespeare at all.

I didn’t understand it, I didn’t relate to it, and I certainly didn’t know why I had to study it.

Then something changed my view of Shakespeare forever: the 1996 RSC version of Midsummer Night’s Dream. I was learning a Shakespeare speech for a LAMDA acting exam, something I am incredibly glad I was forced to do, and for the “discussion” part of the exam we had to be able to discuss the play in its entirety. I picked the DVD up from the library, only because there was no video, and settled down one afternoon in the kitchen. I distrustingly loaded the disc into the PC (a new experience) and shuffled onto a hard kitchen chair to watch it.

The set was incredible: from the man-made lake to the stand-alone doors leading to nowhere to the suspended light bulbs illuminating the forest. It was utterly beautiful. I watched this in 2001, with all my teenage disregard for the bard, at our enormous and unwieldy computer, and I was entirely gripped. The beauty of the staging drew me in, but the relevance of the words was delivered, it seemed, directly to me and directly to my own context. It spoke to me, in a way I hadn’t been spoken to by a play before. I laughed, I cried, and at last I understood.

I’m re-watching this version now to use to teach my year 7 and I am brought back again to the start of my love affair with the bard. Indeed, my single favourite thing about living in London is that I can see live Shakespeare for only £5 a show at the Globe Theatre.

Incidentally, another gem worth a watch is the Globe on screen version of Much Ado About Nothing. I remember watching this production in the theatre itself at the tail end of one of my most stressful teaching terms, and despite not even knowing the story (although my helpful teacher theatre companion did her best to enlighten me en route to the playhouse) found myself laughing uncontrollably.

But how to make my students feel this?

I really believe that the key is a great version; reading words on the page, even as an English teacher, is nowhere near the same as an accomplished actor conveying the lines. So much about plays, anyway, is in the staging, the direction and the delivery of the lines; a novel’s intended audience is only ever an individual, its intended reader’s setting irrelevant, its intended backdrop a blank page. A play clearly has very many more complex layers than this.

The brilliance of a Globe production filmed is not only in the superb acting, but in the nearness of the visible audience, all (in the Much Ado Globe on Screen, and in my own experience) cloaked in rain-macs and huddled to each other and the stage; all interacting with the performance. I am certain the responses of these very familiar-looking modern humans will help my students to appreciate that yes, real people right now laugh at this stuff.

I believe that Shakespeare must be seen first, and acted; not read and analysed to death (although that can come later). On showing my year 9 set 5 Baz Luhrmann’s Act 1 Scene 1 of Romeo and Juliet, my students were bewitched. They really loved it. As one commented: “I didn’t think it would be about people like me!” She might have found the language a turn-off when presented with the page, but seeing the live action challenged that initial distaste for Shakespeare.

I, and I am sure all English teachers, am begging directors and producers everywhere: please, please keep giving us game-changing, earth moving and relevant Shakespeare that we and our students can love.

After all this, I’m still not entirely sure I love reading the stuff. But watching – that’s an entirely different story.

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