“Should Shakespeare be studied in secondary schools?” Sydney-based student Tazmin Harper wrote to Shakespeare Magazine with some questions about Shakespeare’s relevance in the modern day, both inside and outside the classroom – needless to say, Editor Pat Reid had a few comments to make on this subject…

TAZMIN HARPER: How did you become interested/involved with Shakespeare and his works?
PAT REID: “It’s a long story, but the short version is this: At the start of 2013 I decided to read Richard III, and I enjoyed it so much that I carried on until I’d read Shakespeare’s Complete Works, which I think took me about seven or eight months. I had the idea for Shakespeare Magazine almost immediately. I was a media professional experienced in making specialist magazines, so I knew it was something I could do. I thought about it for a year, but couldn’t raise any finance, and I was giving up hope that it would ever happen, when suddenly there was an opportunity. I took a leap of faith, and the first issue of Shakespeare Magazine was published on 23 April 2014.”

 
Did your secondary education shape your interest in Shakespeare? Positively or negatively? 
“I was at secondary school in Merseyside during the 1980s. We did quite a bit of Shakespeare, and I enjoyed it. The teachers were good. It wasn’t an amazingly innovative approach or anything, but I was into it, so I got a lot out of it. Looking around me, I was aware that some of my classmates weren’t getting it at all, and I knew how they felt because in most of my other subjects at school it was me who wasn’t getting it at all.
 
“I should also mention that I had a head start because my Dad had made me read and learn some Shakespeare when I was younger – Julius Caesar and Macbeth, a bit of The Merchant of Venice. I’d even written a short Shakespearean parody when I was about ten. And in my final term at secondary school I wrote and staged a Hamlet spoof called Omlet – it was basically Hamlet meets The Rocky Horror Show. So I was a Young Shakespearean. Then I went to university and it basically put me off English Literature for the next 25 years.”
 

Image by Amogha Sridhar
 
What is your demographic/readership for the Shakespeare Magazine?
“It’s a free online magazine, and we have found readers in well over 100 countries. The majority of the readers are female and they are often (but by no means exclusively) connected to education, the arts and/or the theatre world. Plenty of teachers, students and librarians. The age range is wide, ranging from students in their late teens to retirees in their sixties and older. Our youngest and oldest readers that I know of were 15 and 85.
 
“The two biggest readerships are the USA and the UK, followed by Germany, Australia, Canada, Italy, Japan, Spain, France and Brazil. If you name a country, I can tell you how many readers we have there, and what I know about how Shakespeare is perceived there. We have readers in the most surprising places, but I’ve realised that any country with a capital city, a university, a theatre and a British Embassy will usually have at least a pocket of Shakespeare fans.”

Shakespeare Day in a London school
 
What themes and issues from Shakespeare’s works are most prominent in the modern day? 
“Politics. Love. Men and women. Treachery. Murder. Death and bereavement. War – especially civil war. Leadership, and the lack thereof. Magic and manipulation. Don’t trust witches, but fairies are brilliant. Sometimes goddesses are attracted to mortals. I’ll leave you to work out which of Shakespeare’s plays and poems these refer to.”
 
Do you feel that his plays are still relatable to a modern audience?
“I do, but so what? Just because something is relatable doesn’t mean it’s any good. You’d have to be an extremely sick individual to relate to Lady Macbeth, but she’s a compelling, unforgettable character. (Actually, I know that loads of people do relate to Lady Macbeth. That’s because this strange thing happens with Shakespeare where people often simply ignore the things in the text that don’t match their preconceptions. So therefore it’s possible to believe that Lady Macbeth is, for example, a feminist warrior, when she’s actually a mentally ill accessory to murder.)
 

Lady Macbeth
 
“The way Shakespeare’s plays unfold can seem weird at first. But that’s because most plays, films, TV and novels today use all the same tricks and formulae, and so we find it strange when those things don’t happen. Interestingly, I sometimes find that films from other cultures like India, South Korea and maybe Turkey seem closer to the Shakespearean style of storytelling than modern day English-language stuff. Oddly enough, some elements of the Mamma Mia! films seem quite heavily indebted to Shakespeare.”
 
Why do you believe Shakespeare is such an important figure in English education?
“Since the Enlightenment, I think that Shakespeare has increasingly occupied the space in the minds of the intelligentsia that would previously have been devoted to the Bible. So Shakespeare’s works have become a sort of secular Bible, and thus have attained great importance in our culture. Someone recently said that even in a post-Christian World, the dreams we dream are Christian dreams. I think there’s something in that, but I also think that now those dreams are co-authored by Shakespeare.”
 
Do you believe Shakespeare should be studied in English or Drama in secondary school? Or any other subjects?
“That’s an interesting question, as I hadn’t really thought about Shakespeare being taught in schools outside of English Language and Literature classes. But before I answer the question, let me address this word ‘should’, because whenever I’m told I ‘should’ do something, or read something, or think something or be something, I tend to resist it. And I particularly hate it when people on social media post statements like ‘This should be taught in every school’, as if the whole of humanity has to exactly conform to their own personal likes.
 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
 
“But having said that, I am a Shakespearean, I’m evangelical about Shakespeare, and I know that Shakespeare can be introduced and taught brilliantly in schools – even in primary schools.
 
“So English Language is an obvious subject to bring in Shakespeare. It helps to show where our language has come from and how it has evolved. Same goes for English Literature, obvs.
 
“I suspect most schoolkids don’t study Drama, but I do think it would be bizarre to have a Drama department that didn’t do Shakespeare. If it wasn’t for Shakespeare there wouldn’t BE any Drama department. Doing Shakespeare in Drama is also valuable from a practical point of view. Actors with Shakespeare training tend to be more confident and more versatile. If you look at the British (and some Australian) actors who have broken through internationally in recent years, they usually have done and continue to do major Shakespeare roles. Hollywood takes Shakespeare credentials very seriously, in part because native US actors don’t often have the same experience.
 
“And Shakespeare can also be useful and highly relevant in school History lessons. I’m friendly with the team on BBC History Magazine, and they have Shakespeare references in practically every article. The many excellent historians we see on British TV constantly refer to Shakespeare. I’ve said before that you can’t be a Shakespearean and not be at least part historian, but maybe it’s the other way round too – you can’t be a historian and not be at least part Shakespearean.
 

Katy Ransome at Shakespeare Lives in Botswana, 2016
 
“Shakespeare and his associates are obviously interesting historical figures in their own right, and it’s refreshing to study the popular culture of their era, as a contrast to the more big picture stuff on monarchs, wars, politics, plagues, the importance of pumpernickel in Westphalia, and so on. There was an amazing explosion of creativity in the Elizabethan era, and we’re still feeling it in our popular culture today. Shakespeare also provides a helpful entry point for certain subjects, or can be an alternative way to approach things – even if it’s just the obvious route of ‘This is how Shakespeare depicted Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, Henry V, Richard III – how does it compare to what we now understand to be the historical facts?’”
 
Do you feel that Shakespeare and his works should be a required topic to study in secondary school? Why?
“Allowing again for my unease with the word ‘should’, I do believe that Shakespeare belongs in secondary schools, certainly in England, and probably everywhere else English is spoken as well. Look, it’s important to know about your culture, and if you speak English then you’re one of Shakespeare’s children, so a bit of respect, as they say, is due.
 
“Shakespeare is the most important writer – and arguably one of the most significant human beings – of the last 500 years, so any education system in the English-speaking world would be severely lacking if it didn’t reflect that.
 
“There are at least two countries I know of where they’ve tried to kick Shakespeare out of the classroom in recent years. One is Zimbabwe and the other is Canada. Now, clearly Zimbabwe needs to cultivate its own literature and writers, but to me it seems that Mugabe’s henchmen wanted to ban Shakespeare because they didn’t want a population capable of independent thought.
 
“In Canada, the idea is to replace Shakespeare with Canadian authors, so it’s a kind of nationalist but also virtue signalling move, and it’s nakedly political because they apparently want to erase the historic links between the UK and Canada. And also I believe cash gets funnelled to favoured authors, so this also has the whiff of cronyism.
 
 
“Incidentally, Canada’s greatest living writer, Margaret Atwood, is herself an avid Shakespearean, and interestingly I believe she was largely homeschooled. Elsewhere I saw one quote from a young woman saying ‘As a Chinese Canadian, I don’t want to learn about English writers’. Which is ironic, because in England there was a serious proposal in Birmingham, the second biggest city, to change the name of the airport to William Shakespeare International Airport, as it’s receiving such huge volumes of tourists from China who are coming to visit Shakespeare’s Birthplace.
 
“This leads me to another observation: outside of the English-speaking world, the interest in and love for Shakespeare is phenomenal. So even if native English speakers cease to value Shakespeare, his works will find a home in emerging superpowers like China, India and Brazil.”

Which works of his do you believe are the most important to be studied?
“I suppose there’s five or ten big plays that everybody’s heard of, but for the numerous reasons I’ve discussed above, all Shakespeare’s works have value – let’s not forget the Sonnets, and long poems like Venus and Adonis – and if teachers are able to give a flavour of it all, then so much the better.
 
“It would be nice if teachers were able to choose which ones to do based on how much a particular class would enjoy them and respond to them. It occurs to me that while I advocate Shakespeare for all, it would be a shame if everyone was taught the same texts in the same way, and expected to arrive at the same conclusions.
 
 
“It’s often said that performing Shakespeare is the best way to get to grips with the texts. This certainly works for me, but some children are mortified at the thought of reading something out loud to their peers. I can also understand that tackling entire plays can be tough, as youngsters tend to lose interest before the end. Perhaps an alternative approach could be a kind of ‘tasting menu’ of Shakespeare, where classes would sample extracts from several plays, as well as dipping into the long poems and the Sonnets.
 
“In 2014 FutureLearn did an excellent Shakespeare MOOC (online course) which was presented by Jonathan Bate. Something like that could easily be adapted for secondary schools. In which case every kid in Britain would end up knowing Shakespeare better than I did before I started Shakespeare Magazine. That would be fantastic.”
 

New BBC radio documentary ‘Shakespeare and Terrorism’ to explore Osama bin Laden’s hatred of Shakespeare – and the Bard’s own alleged family links to the Gunpowder Plot.

Osama bin Laden’s weekly visits to Shakespeare’s birthplace and the Bard’s historic links to the Gunpowder Plot will be among the stories explored in a new documentary airing on BBC Radio 3.

Shakespeare and Terrorism’, presented by Dr Islam Issa, Senior Lecturer in English Literature at Birmingham City University, examines how the iconic playwright’s work has been linked to acts of terror or influenced terrorists.

The documentary will look at how the Bard’s work has been viewed and interpreted by extremists from across the globe including bin Laden, Guy Fawkes, Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth and Nazi theorist Carl Schmitt.

Birthplace
Shakespeare’s Birthplace

Documents released by the CIA last year detailed bin Laden’s frequent visits to Stratford-upon-Avon as a teenager and his hatred of Shakespeare as a symbol of the West and its political ideology.

The terror leader wrote in his diaries that “we went every Sunday to visit Shakespeare’s house” and these experiences are believed to have coloured his hatred of the West.

Links between the Bard and the Gunpowder Plot stem from the fact the plotters included family friends of Shakespeare and that the conspirators had strong links to Stratford-upon-Avon.

Guy Fawkes
Guy Fawkes

Abraham Lincoln’s assassin John Booth, murdered the American President in Ford’s Theatre in Washington. Booth was an actor and fan of Shakespeare who was influenced by the playwright’s portrayal of freedom and the murder of the emperor in the play Julius Caesar.

Meanwhile Carl Schmitt used Shakespeare as a way to justify Nazi and fascist ideology and wrote a book focussing on how going against the law can be justified, just as murder ultimately ended Hamlet’s troubles.

Dr Issa believes Shakespeare’s themes and characters make the plays wide open to multiple and varied interpretations.

Islam Issa 1
Dr Islam Issa

“The terrorists who hated Shakespeare or who attacked theatres saw the playwright as a symbol of the West or of colonialism,” he says. “But looking at it from another angle, some terrorists have also been inspired by him.

“There are lots of violent and extreme moments in the plays that remind us of what we see in the news today. Not only did Shakespeare live through the biggest terrorist plot in British history – the Gunpowder Plot – he also constructed characters who have similar issues, mind-sets and justifications to modern-day terrorists.

“For example, recording this show has really made me reinterpret the character of Hamlet.”

​The documentary will take in interviews, including one with a criminologist to analyse the mind of a terrorist, and includes visits to Hamlet’s castle in Denmark and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust underground archives, where Dr Issa examines rare documents linked to the Gunpowder Plot.

Kronborg
Kronborg Castle

Shakespeare and Terrorism’ will air on BBC Radio 3 as part of ‘Sunday Feature’ on Sunday 4 November at 6.45pm.

New York’s recent explosively controversial Shakespeare in the Park was All About Trump, but at Bristol’s Old Vic Theatre there was a rather more British take on Shakespeare’s perennially politicised play “Julius Caesar”

Julius Caesar at Bristol Old Vic - Lynn Farleigh (Calpurnia) Julian Glover (Julius Caesar) - Photo by Simon Purse
Photos by Simon Purse

Veteran actor Julian Glover’s Caesar is no Trump, but the fact that he’s beloved by the young while feared and hated by the recently-young does put one in mind of another JC – Jeremy Corbyn – and this production definitely takes its energy from today’s (30 June 2017) sense of post-election turbulence. There’s even an “Oh, Julius Caesar!” refrain from the mob in the opening scene.
These things never quite fit, of course. Arrogant and vain, Glover’s JC would never be mistaken for an allotment-tending socialist. You get the sense that his military victories and territorial conquests have made him a bit mad.

Julius Caesar at Bristol Old Vic - Afolabi Alli (Metellus) and Rudolphe Mdlongwa (Cinna) - Photo by Simon Purse
Indeed, for all his belief in his own godlike prowess, there’s a King Lear-like frailty to this Caesar. The one glimpse of his political instincts – when he singles out Cassius as dangerous – merely confirms that his radar is working but his defences are down.

Apart from Caesar, Calpurnia (Lynn Farleigh) and the Soothsayer (John Hartoch), the rest of the characters are all played by students from Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, and there’s plenty of ascending talent on display. Brutus is portrayed by Freddie Bowerman as a ramrod-straight patrician whose much-discussed honour never quite masks the suggestion that he’s acting out of vanity. As Cassius, Edward Stone is an oily George Osborne-type. A persuasive political realist, he needs Brutus on board for the conspiracy to succeed – but his deference to Brutus will prove a fatal flaw.

Julius Caesar at Bristol Old Vic - Alice Kerrigan (Cinna the Poet) with company - Photo by Simon Purse
Casca is one of Shakespeare’s most marvellously bitchy creations and, played with icy disdain by Eleanor House, gets quite a few laughs (in the early scenes, that is – Casca is also the conspirator who initiates the stabbing of Caesar). The gender-swapped casting means this Julius Caesar takes place in a world where wives like Calpurnia and Portia (Sarah Livingston) are essentially enslaved by the patriarchy, and yet it is simultaneously permissible for women to have high-flying political careers and fight in the civil war. Most significantly, Octavius becomes Octavia, played by Rosy McEwen with emotionless hauteur, reminiscent of a killer robot from the Terminator films.

Julius Caesar at Bristol Old Vic - Freddie Bowerman (Brutus) - Photo by Simon Purse
Mark Antony is played by Ross O’Donnellan as a party animal with a broad Irish accent, a fact which seemed to greatly amuse the two blokes sitting next to me. I thought it was a good choice for a character whom the conspirators underestimate until he strikes them with deadly force. The scene after Caesar’s assassination where Antony insists on shaking hands with the blood-soaked killers worked particularly well. It starts off as desperate survival technique, but it allows us to see Antony gradually get the measure of each of his opponents, and begin to realise he can beat them.

Julius Caesar at Bristol Old Vic - Ross O'Donnellan (Mark Antony) - Photo by Simon Purse
The mob scenes and battles are skilfully deployed in this lean, fast-moving production. The supporting cast all have a lot to do, playing multiple characters and at times literally running riot. The modern-day dress code of business suits and military fatigues is similar to the Ralph Fiennes Coriolanus film. But director Simon Dormandy’s Caesar has strengths of its own as it points, Soothsayer-like, to the consequences of political meltdown.

Julius Caesar ran at Bristol Old Vic from 9 June to 1 July 2017.
Go here for more on Bristol Old Vic.
Go here for more on Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.

We met with scholar, author and poet Paul Edmondson for a delightful catch-up chat in Stratford-upon-Avon during the recent celebrations for Shakespeare’s birthday

Paul Edmondson

Paul Edmondson

 
Which play or area of Shakespeare are you working on right now? And what are you getting from it?
“This week I’ve spent a lot of time in New Place garden with the sculptor Greg Wyatt who’s produced those lovely sculptures inspired by Shakespeare’s plays which are installed there. I’ve spent a lot of time – and I’m doing it again this evening with a special group of VIPs – looking at Greg’s sculptures with Greg. It’s about me talking about how he made the sculptures, but then reflecting on them as responses to Shakespeare’s works. So, this week I’ve been very much in my head with The Tempest, Julius Caesar, King Lear, The Winter’s Tale, Henry IV Parts One and Two, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet! Those are the eight sculptures.

“One of the great things about them is that they work on you like a Shakespeare play, each sculpture, because they draw you in and the more you look at them, the more you notice – details, a face emerging, a hand. They’re a great highlight for visitors. In fact, only two days ago when I was there I saw a young father with his five-month-old son, reading him the script  – all of them have got quotations from the relevant plays – from Julius Caesar, as if somehow this was having a positive impact on this five-month-old son. I took his photograph and asked if I could use it and he said yes, feel free to use it. It was most touching, because when I look at people interacting with these sculptures inspired by the plays, I know of no other sculpture like them in the world.

“I mean, I can think of sculptures inspired by individual characters and Shakespeare himself, but not in a response to an entire play – it’s more like a painting. People reach out and touch them, and Greg said this is the highest compliment a sculptor can have, that you somehow want to become the work and reach out and touch it. This five-month-old baby was doing precisely that – it was reaching out to want to touch Julius Caesar!”

What have you learned about Shakespeare that would have surprised your younger self?
“This isn’t recently, but I think I would have been surprised about how many books he used to write the plays. I’d have been delighted to know that as a younger self – the bookishness of Shakespeare’s intellect, his sense of study before putting quill to paper. Each play was a significant research project, he wasn’t just dashing these off. Although, of course, they were written at different speeds for different occasions. So, I think that would have been something I’ve learnt since my younger self that I would have been pleased to have known.”

Which Shakespeare character most resembles you?
“Robin Goodfellow in a Midsummer Night’s Dream. I’m not going to expand on that one!”

If I asked you to give mne a Shakespeare quotation, which is the first one that comes to your mind?
“‘If this be magic, let it be an art lawful as eating’ which is The Winter’s Tale as Hermione’s sculpture is coming to take her long lost husband by the hand. That’s in my head because of the sculpture in New Place. I remember the novelist Salley Vickers said to me that was her favourite line in Shakespeare and that’s resonated with me.”

What is your favourite Shakespeare myth?
“My favourite Shakespeare myth is the deer poaching story from nearby Charlecote. I think there’s more than a grain of truth in that myth. It rings true to me, but it does have the status of myth.”

You have the power to cast anyone (actor or otherwise) to play any Shakespearean character. Who do you choose – and which role do they play?
“I would like to see Sir Stanley Wells play Hamlet. Although he wouldn’t want to do this, in my imagination that would embody Stanley’s pre-eminence in Shakespeare studies. Hamlet is the greatest role in Shakespeare, therefore let’s have the greatest Shakespearean of our own times play him. If I was thinking about an actor, I’d like to Shakespeare himself perform Hamlet. Can you imagine? Apparently, he never did because it was written for Richard Burbage, but it would be great to Shakespeare himself play a role in one of his plays. You’ve got those two outlandish bookends, as it were, but I would also like to see Kenneth Branagh play all the other parts he is qualified to play, but hasn’t!”

Paul will be appearing at the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival, which runs from 18-25 June. Go here for information and tickets.

Back in 2014, an illuminating interview with Hollow Crown Fans kicked off the very first issue of Shakespeare Magazine. This month, we caught up with Rose from HCF for a timely update on her Shakespearean activities

Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III

Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III

 
Your very own #ShakespeareSunday hashtag began in 2012, and is still reaching new Twitter heights.
Rose: “There have been great themes and theme pickers over the years, and it continues to show just how popular and global the Bard’s works are. The Bard’s birthday celebrations this year actually landed on a #ShakespeareSunday which was great timing, even Stan Lee and Chaka Khan joined in! It really is fun to see who discovers the tag each week, as well as enjoying the creativity of the regular tweeters on the tag.

“Since the interview with Shakespeare Magazine in 2014 we had the unexpected good news that Neal Street were going to make a second series of The Hollow Crown, with Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III, which has come and gone. Now there are already rumours of a third series involving the Roman plays, so that is certainly an area I’ll be looking into further. It has been a popular theme on #ShakespeareSunday a few times, and Coriolanus a favourite to quote from since Tom Hiddleston starred in the leading role at the Donmar in 2013. The Roman plays seem to be very much the choice of the moment, and Hollow Crown fans are also excited at the prospect of Julius Caesar opening in London next year with Ben Whishaw and David Morrissey!”

Maxine Peake (left) as Doll Tearsheet in The Hollow Crown

Maxine Peake (left) as Doll Tearsheet in The Hollow Crown

 
Which Shakespeare character most resembles you?
“Going off from the Hollow Crown cast for this question, I’d say Doll Tearsheet… maybe. I can rock the English peasant look, for good or bad, even Neal Street thought that when they cast me as an extra for Henry V! Ha Ha.”

If I ask you to give me a Shakespeare quotation, which is the first one that comes to your mind?
“What relish is in this? How runs the stream? Or I am mad, or else this is a dream.” – Twelfth Night (Act IV, Scene 1)

You have the power to cast anyone in the world (actor or otherwise) to play any Shakespearean character. Who do you choose – and which role do they play?
“Seth Numrich – Prince Hal / Henry V. I have become a fan of Seth’s via another love of mine, the AMC TV series TURN: Washington’s Spies. Fans of the Bard and history really need to check this show out if they have not done so already. Fantastic cast, gripping storyline and Shakespeare quotes dropped in at various points over the seasons. There is a wonderful YouTube video of Seth quoting from The Merchant of Venice (“The quality of mercy is not strain’d…”) that has not left my head since watching it many moons ago. To see him on stage doing Shakespeare would be a real treat!

Seth Numrich in TURN

Seth Numrich in TURN

 
“In his interview for Muse of Fire (which you can see on Globe Player, 47 minutes in) Seth mentions his desire to play the role of Prince Hal, and he would be perfect. One of my favourite characters from The Hollow Crown and Shakespeare’s plays as a whole. I watched this interview in 2015 and I’m still waiting. If I had the power I’d certainly make it happen! Whilst we all wait, do check out Seth with Matt Doyle in Private Romeo, an all-male cast set in a high-school military academy.”

Follow Hollow Crown Fans on Twitter, and join the #ShakespeareSunday festivities each weekend.

Read our Hollow Crown Fans interview in Shakespeare Magazine 01.

Read the Hollow Crown Fans interview with actor Edward Akrout in Shakespeare Magzazine 04.

“I’d like to see Barack Obama play Brutus in Julius Caesar…” Shakespeare Magazine meets Dr Erin Sullivan of the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon

Dr Erin Sullivan of The Shakespeare Institute

Dr Erin Sullivan of The Shakespeare Institute

 
Which play or area of Shakespeare are you working on right now – and what are you getting from it?
ERIN SULLIVAN: “Right now I’m working on Shakespeare and digital technology, so my focus is on how technology is influencing or shaping the performance of Shakespeare today. Some of that has to do with the development of live broadcasting, online streaming, or where people might see a production through a screen digitally. Some of it is where directors are using digital technology on stage, live video on stage or a TV screen maybe to show a 24-hour news cycle alongside a Roman play or something like that.

“Then the last area of it is looking at directors or artists that are thinking about whether it’s possible to take performance fully into the digital sphere – for instance, stage a play using social media on Twitter or Instagram, or use that in a hybrid way with production.

Andrew Scott as Hamlet at the Almeida Theatre

Andrew Scott as Hamlet at the Almeida Theatre

 
“What am I getting from it? Lots! It’s really fun because it means getting to go and see lots of different things. There’s lots of things I’ve been to, thinking it’s not for my project – and then a screen appears and I start rifling through my bag for a notebook! I think, in general, I’m really interested in how people take hold of Shakespeare, what people of different generations have found exciting or emotionally engaging about his plays. Technology has really proliferated and become such an important part of our lives in the last 20 years. That’s one of the biggest changes I’ve seen in my own life, so I think that’s why I was drawn to it.

“A lot of what I’m looking at is still big theatre companies like the RSC or the National Theatre and sometimes slightly smaller ones like the Almeida, but it has also opened up a whole world of what you might call ‘grassroots Shakespeare’ – amateur versus professional. A lot of people are doing Shakespeare themselves in lots of ways and using things like Twitter to explore a character or look at the text in a new way.”

What have you learned about Shakespeare that would have surprised your younger self?
“Gosh, there must be many things. I know for certain when I first came here to do my MA, the thing that surprised me most was, in some ways, that I didn’t know anything about the different versions of different plays. So, the idea that for Hamlet there were three different printings of the play either during Shakespeare’s time or shortly after his death, and that there are some significant differences between those printings – the same with King Lear – that’s something that I remember really blew my mind when I first got here.

Quarto edition of King Lear, 1608

Quarto edition of King Lear, 1608

 
“It’s interesting that in a play like King Lear there can be one line and different versions of that line that actors or scholars can choose from, because although the shape of the play itself is still pretty much the same, there are a lot of moments when you can pick your favourite version. There’s a bit more scope for playing with the text or reinventing it at times that we might not expect. It seems a long time ago, when I came to study, but that’s the thing that surprised me the most.”

Which Shakespeare character most resembles you?
“There’s lots of ones in different moments that I identify with – Brutus with his pensive deliberateness or Falstaff and his fun, but I think the one that first came to mind was Rosalind (As You Like It). In the way of, hopefully, her vivaciousness, her determination to get things her way, but in a good sense! Really going after what she wants, really embracing love and friendship, and that being an important part of their life. That’s maybe one that I would aspire to be like, I should say, as opposed to saying that’s me.”

Rosalind (As You Like It)

Rosalind (As You Like It)

 
If I asked you to give me a Shakespeare quotation, which is the first one that comes to your mind?
“Definitely something from Hamlet, and all the speeches came to mind. I remember one quote that always really struck me when I was younger studying was Hamlet saying ‘there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so’. I thought that was so true. There’s so much black and white truth, but then so much of it is also about the way that we take a certain idea and make it mean something for us. Also, at the darker ends of things, people can really twist things back and forth. So, yes, that was the first one that came to mind.”

What is your favourite Shakespeare myth?
“I like the one about Shakespeare poaching deer at Charlecote. I think just because it makes him seem like kind of a lovable rogue! I guess it’s a Falstaffian or Eastcheap sort of side in that it’s not really that bad of a thing to do, but a bit naughty and a bit funny. Also it very much locates him here in, not in Stratford itself, but out here in the Warwickshire area. Just trying to think about what he would have been like and what he would have got up to.”

You have the power to cast anyone (actor or otherwise) to play any Shakespearean character. Who do you choose – and which role do they play?
“Gosh, there’s so many good ones! I know who I want to cast, but let me think about who I want them to play… Okay, so I’d like to see Barack Obama as Brutus in Julius Caesar. I thought Henry V might be quite nice too, but now that he’s sidelined from power a little, I’d like to see him play that very pensive, thoughtful, would-be politician and see what he makes of it. I think he’d be really good, too! I think he’s very intelligent and quite cerebral, but also funny.”

President Obama with actor Leonardo DiCaprio

President Obama with actor Leonardo DiCaprio

 
“I think he’d be a good Henry V too because he can be fiery and rousing and, I think, he’s got such a nice sense of humour and I think that nice act at the end of Henry V with the wooing of Catherine, I think he’d be pretty good in. Maybe if I could have the two shows in rep, I’d have him doing both! That would be my ideal.”

For more on Dr Erin Sullivan, visit her blog, Digital Shakespeares.

Photo Essay: One of the stars of the acclaimed Donmar Shakespeare Trilogy, multi-talented Jade Anouka talks us through an action-packed gallery of images by photographer Helen Maybanks

Images by Helen Maybanks

Henry IV
Jade Anouka as Hotspur in Henry IV.

“This is actually during a scene change in Henry IV. Karen Dunbar live DJs throughout the show. But she is in the next scene so I take over the decks at this point.”

The Tempest
Jade as Ariel in The Tempest.

“During the song ‘Come Unto These Yellow Sands’ in The Tempest. The whole company perform the song with a mix of instruments including guitar, drums, harmonica and trumpet. Joan Armatrading composed the music for Shakespeare’s words. At this point I am rapping – our director got me to write some spoken word for the show to help bring moments up to date. As a poet, I relished the opportunity.”

Julius Caesar
Jade as Mark Antony in Julius Caesar.

“In Julius Caesar I begin Mark Anthony’s ‘Friends, Romans, Countrymen’ speech face down with the rest of the company/Romans pointing guns to my head. From this completely vulnerable point, it is amazing how Shakespeare’s words can move the crowd to follow Anthony.”

Henry IV
As Hotspur in Henry IV.

“This is Hotspur in an early scene of Henry IV. He is talking to the King, explaining that there was a misunderstanding, and at this point he is asking not to let this misunderstanding get in the way of their relationship.”

Henry IV
The Earl of Douglas (Leah-Harvey) spars with Hotspur in Henry IV.

“Hotspur recruits The Earl of Douglas to his side, and in this moment they are sparring – a sort of test or initiation to make sure Douglas is up to it. He proves he is more than capable!”

The Tempest
As Ariel in The Tempest.

“As Ariel, here I am performing another of my penned raps. This is in place of a rhyming couplet that Shakespeare wrote about how fast and efficiently Ariel says he and his sprites will fullfill Prospero’s tasks. I wrote a version, and it is performed just before the wedding.”

Henry IV
Prince Hal (Clare Dunne) battles Hotspur in Henry IV.

“Here is an action shot in the big fight and only meeting of Prince Hal and Hotspur in the play. They are forced to fight to the death in order to win the war. It starts off as a stylised boxing match and descends into a grapple where a knife gets involved. I loved doing the stage combat! Thanks to Kombat Kate for choreographing.”

The Donmar Shakespeare Trilogy at King’s Cross Theatre runs until 17 December.

All performances of Julius Caesar and The Tempest, and all Trilogy Days are sold out. There are a limited number of tickets available for Henry IV on 13 December.

Go here for more information and tickets.

“Titus Andronicus probably wouldn’t be the best starting point…” Teacher and Hour-Long Shakespeare author Matthew Jenkinson offers his tips on approaching Shakespeare with young people

“All’s Well That Ends Well is funny – if you’re fluent in Shakespearean English!” protested one GCSE English pupil to me recently. It is not an uncommon complaint, along with assertions that Shakespeare’s plays are too complicated or difficult for many school children. Well, quite rightly Shakespeare is not going to go away; quite the opposite, as the new National Curriculum puts even greater emphasis on his works.

So how can parents or teachers aid in the understanding of Shakespeare among their pupils or children? The most empowering thing you can say, at first, is “Do not worry about understanding all (or any) of the words”. It is amazing how quickly a pupil’s brain can shut down because they are panicking about ‘getting’ everything the first time around. Understanding comes with time, re-reading, and patient explanation.

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It is also enhanced by watching Shakespeare on the stage. But parents and teachers need to be judicious about this. Watching a poor stage production will have pupils running a mile in the opposite direction, and they certainly won’t feel inclined to explore the text in any greater depth. Watching a great stage production can have the opposite effect.

There is no need to traipse long distances to Stratford or London these days either. The Globe Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company, respectively, have released some excellent DVDs of their recent stage productions. So you can now break up three-hour-long productions in the classroom or at home, pausing to discuss what is happening or to go to the loo.

Attending a live production can be exhilarating, but I would wait until the children have gained some traction. Making them stand in the rain at The Globe for three hours, as a first experience of Shakespeare, probably won’t have them begging for more.

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Watching a live performance enables pupils to work out plots by seeing the interaction between characters and hearing the tone employed by expert actors. I have used Roger Allam’s Falstaff scenes, performed at The Globe in 2010, to convey to pupils what happens in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. I have been amazed at how much laughter has come from individuals who just would not have understood the text if we had merely read it from the page.

The other way to get children engaged with Shakespeare is to get them on their feet, acting out parts. Again, a sensitive and judicious approach is necessary here. First of all, the choice of play is vital. Titus Andronicus probably wouldn’t be the best starting point. Parents and teachers also need to be understanding of the fact that many pupils, especially as they stumble through adolescence, will be quite reticent about standing up and delivering elaborate metaphors.

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There are two powerful ways to counter this. The first is to create a culture in school and at home where drama is an everyday feature – it is not nerdy or distant. The second – obviously – is to ‘differentiate’ the casting, ensuring that the allocation of parts reflects the confidence and ability of the pupils. Giving a reticent child the part of Macbeth will put them off Shakespeare for life, as will giving a confident actor the part of First Servingman. One of the joys of Shakespeare’s history plays, in particular, is the number of roles available, with differing levels of intensity; every pupil can find their niche.

There are very few schools out there that will be able to stage a full three-hour Shakespeare play, which is why I have been editing a new series of abridged versions in the Hour-Long Shakespeare series. As the title suggests, each play lasts about an hour when performed, with central characters and the overall narrative arcs preserved. This is by no means a novel project – the plays have been abridged since Shakespeare’s day, as evidenced by the discovery in 2014 of a First Folio in St Omer, France, in which Jesuits made cuts to suit their pupils.

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What is new about the Hour-Long series, aside from some original scene shifting (don’t use these texts in exams!), is the use of a Chorus in all of the plays. Shakespeare himself famously used a Chorus in Henry V, for example, but adopting this device in other plays enables any number of pupils to get involved as narrators, offering summaries of excised sections of plot, or acting as Roman citizens in Julius Caesar, the tyrant’s conscience in Richard III, or the witches in Macbeth – all with the text still in front of them.

Removing the pressures of learning vast amounts of lines, or spending too long on the stage, enables usually reticent pupils to engage with Shakespeare in performance. Maintaining juicy title roles with headline speeches attracts those keen actors who are ready for something more challenging. In sum, Shakespeare hopefully becomes more manageable for those who would normally be scared off.

Matthew Jenkinson is director of studies at New College School in Oxford. Hour-Long Shakespeare: Henry IV (Part 1), Henry V and Richard III is available now, priced £10. Hour-Long Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and Julius Cesar will be published in September.

Gaze in wonder at visionary poet and artist William Blake’s spellbinding paintings inspired by the works of William Shakespeare

This week we’ve been celebrating the 28 November birthday of William Blake (1757-1827). Although perhaps best known for his poems and for writing the words to the hymn ‘Jerusalem’, Blake was also a visionary painter, one whose was often Shakespeare-inspired.
Here is Blake’s ‘Pity’ (1795), inspired by the evocative but mysterious line from Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “And pity, like a naked new-born babe, Striding the blast…”
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Blake also illustrated more conventional scenes from Shakespeare – although often with a supernatural dimension. Here’s his version of Hamlet encountering his father’s Ghost (1806).
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Brutus and the ghost of Julius Caesar is another haunting Shakespearean scene from Blake (1806).
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And here we have Richard III on the night before the Battle of Bosworth, assailed by the ghosts of his victims (circa 1806).
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Blake also painted Oberon, Titania, Puck and the other fairies from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in this beautiful and dreamlike tableau from 1786.
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And Blake even turned his supremely versatile hand to a portrait of Shakespeare himself (circa 1800).
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William Blake was a poet, painter, printer, visionary, mystic – and Shakespearean. Portrait by Thomas Phillips (1807).
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Thank you to Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust Education for showing us the link between two great English literary Williams – William Blake and William Shakespeare.

Find out about the William Blake Exhibition at the Ashmolean, Oxford.
Find out about the William Blake Exhibition at Tate Britain.
Fnd out about Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust Education.