WHY SHAKESPEARE IS ALIVE AND WELL AT 450
The Globe’s Director of Globe Education Patrick Spottiswoode tells us why there will always be a place for Shakespeare in education even 450 years after the Bard’s birth
Ben Jonson wrote that Shakespeare was ‘not of an age but for all time’. He felt the same about himself. He had the vanity to publish his own plays – with some poems and classical translations – in a grand Folio edition in 1616, the year Shakespeare died. Seven years later, two actors, Heminges and Condell, decided to publish Shakespeare’s plays together in Folio, too.
Did Shakespeare think his plays ‘were for all time’? Probably not. Plays were considered ephemeral (from the Greek ‘epi-hemera, meaning ‘for a day’) rather than having lasting value. Most plays of the period have not survived. Few made it to the printing house from the playhouse.
However, 450 years after his birth, Shakespeare’s plays are more popular than ever before. Now translated into over 100 languages, they have been re-interpreted as opera, film, ballet, musical, painting and cartoon. Shakespeare is an international brand – his lines are used and abused on a daily basis. The tea towel and fridge magnet industries thrive thanks to Shakespeare quotes. Even his image is exploited. I admit to owning a Shakespeare rubber duck and a Shakespeare corkscrew, part of a growing Shakespeare tat collection that would make for an interesting exhibition.
Shakespeare could never have imagined that his plays would be food for a national curriculum or studied at desks in classrooms. Fellow playwright John Marston argued that his plays were written to be performed rather than read. It is the classroom reading of Shakespeare’s plays that put so many students (and teachers) off. It may have put you off Shakespeare, too.
However, the teaching of Shakespeare has improved dramatically over recent years. Increasingly the plays are being taught through performance and as scripts for actors that are open to a range of interpretations. A host of film as well as stage versions are available to support classroom teaching while theatre organisations, like Shakespeare’s Globe, are drawing on rehearsal room practice to animate workshops for teachers and students.
These approaches are opening up the plays, encouraging students to seek their own interpretations. Yes, the vocabulary can be difficult because some of the words are so ‘old’ but it was often difficult for Shakespeare’s actors, too, because some of his words were ‘new’.
However, the issues that Shakespeare explores in the plays are neither old nor new, but ‘for all time’. His plays have become universal stories that people across the world can share and discuss. Everyone should have the opportunity to meet Shakespeare. One advantage of having Shakespeare on the curriculum is that every student is given that opportunity. As long as that meeting is, as Shakespeare intended, playful.
There is meaning in play.
Patrick Spottiswoode is Director of Globe Education at Shakespeare’s Globe. Find out more by visiting shakespearesglobe.com/education