All Crowns are Hollow: The scheming and backstabbing politicians of today would do well to ponder the fate of Shakespeare’s Kings

“…For within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a King
Keeps Death his court…”
Richard II – Act III, Scene 2
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Shakespeare’s plays are full of lessons for contemporary politicians – especially, perhaps, the history plays like Richard II, the tragedies such as Macbeth, and the Roman plays including Julius Caesar.
There’s one lesson that pops up time and time again, and I’ll present it as a question: “Are you really sure you want to be King?”
Because kingship in Shakespeare’s plays is almost always presented as a poisoned chalice – quite literally so, at the end of Hamlet.
Very few of the kings in Shakespeare ever get to do any actual ‘kinging’. Instead they fight tooth and nail to get to the throne – often committing heinous crimes like murder in the process – and then they die.
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Looking back at these plays from a distance of 400 or so years, it seems clear that what Shakespeare is doing is helpfully pointing out that the English system of monarchy doesn’t work very well. In fact it’s susceptible to complete breakdown, and when that happens we get a civil war – which is bad news for absolutely everyone.
Don’t believe me? Well, Here’s how Shakespeare depicts the fate of all the English kings between a relatively short period of 1400-1485:
Richard II – allegedly murdered.
Henry IV – dies stricken by guilt and fear.
Henry V – dies young, bequeathing legacy of chaos.
Henry VI – allegedly murdered.
Edward IV – allegedly murdered.
Edward V and his brother (the Princes in the Tower) – allegedly murdered.
Richard III – killed in battle.
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Not to mention all the other many and various Yorkists and Lancastrians with viable claims to the throne or legitimate places in the succession who are either murdered or meet their demise in battle.
One suggestion that emerges here is that maybe it’s better for a nation to be at peace and for society to tolerate a certain amount of hooliganism or anti-social behaviour (characterised by Prince Hal, Falstaff and their cronies in Henry IV Parts 1 and 2) than to embark on wars of conquest (Henry V) that deliver short term glory but ultimately bring disaster (Henry VI).
As suggested above, Shakespeare seems to truly hate and fear civil war. If you read the ten history plays as a sequence (starting with King John and ending with Henry VIII), the dominant emotion is often grief. Some of the most powerful speeches, whether by queens or commoners, are those which mourn the deaths of cruelly slaughtered loved ones. In Shakespeare there is rarely any upside to such butchery.
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The challenge of kingship, Shakespeare suggests, is about the careful control of volatile factors in a world where an alpha tyrant (Richard III) is just as likely to fall as a watery weakling (Henry VI). Perhaps, ultimately, the definition of a successful king is one whose reign wasn’t interesting enough for Shakespeare to write a play about.
Of course, it’s always perilous to mix up Shakespeare’s heavily fictionalised history plays with the actual history of England, but while we often think of the Tudor period that followed 1485 as being less volatile, it seems that these dysfunctional patterns of monarchy continued right through the reigns of Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I.
There was war with France and Scotland in the reign of Henry VIII, the shattering effect of the Reformation – and notoriously he had two of his six queens executed. Edward and Mary both died young, having continued to stoke the fires of religious conflict. Elizabeth’s reign was blighted by the threat of Spanish invasion and numerous assassination plots, including one which led to her executing her rival, Mary Queen of Scots.
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(And in a plot twist that even Shakespeare might have considered a bit unlikely, James the VI of Scotland ended up succeeding to the throne of Elizabeth – the very same woman who’d had his mother executed.)
Shakespeare, remember was born in 1564. In a little over 17 years prior to his birth England had no less than four monarchs. Five, if you include the ill fated ‘nine days’ Queen’, Lady Jane Grey.
And a quarter of a century after Shakespeare’s death, there was of course another civil war. And this one ended with the beheading of a king, Charles I, in a scenario with grim echoes of Macbeth.
The odd thing is that Shakespeare worked for Charles’ father, James VI and I, for whom he wrote Macbeth. If the young Charles ever knew of Shakespeare and his works, it seems that – to his tragic cost – he ignored their lessons.
Images from The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses, courtesy of the BBC.

From director Josie Rourke, Tudor historical drama Mary Queen of Scots starring Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie is now available for home viewing

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Two powerful Queens battle for one throne in the riveting and extraordinary drama based on a true story, Mary Queen of Scots, available now on Digital and on Blu-ray, DVD and On Demand on 20 May 2019, from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.

A chronicle of two strong woman pitted against each other in an age of male dominance, the 16th century tale showcases bold performances from former Academy Award nominees Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie in their roles as Mary I of Scotland and Elizabeth I of England.

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Filled with manipulation, betrayal and deceit from start to finish, Mary Queen of Scots also features an outstanding supporting cast including Guy Pearce, Jack Lowden, Joe Alwyn, Adrian Lester, Gemma Chan and David Tennant.

Mary Queen of Scots explores the turbulent life of the charismatic Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan). Queen of France at 16, widowed at 18, Mary defies pressure to remarry and instead returns to her native Scotland to reclaim her rightful throne. By birth, she also has a rival claim to the throne of Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie), who rules as the Queen of England.

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Determined to rule as much more than a figurehead, Mary asserts her claim to the English throne, threatening Elizabeth’s sovereignty. Rivals in power and love, the two Queens make very difficult choices about marriage and children. Betrayal, rebellion and conspiracies within each court imperil both Queens, driving them apart, as each women experiences the bitter cost of power.

Hailed by Stephanie Zacharek of Time as “cleverly entertaining”, Mary Queen of Scots on Blu-ray and DVD comes packed with bonus features including a commentary by actors and filmmakers as well as exclusive featurettes that will take viewers on a behind-the-scenes journey into the making of the film.

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BLU-RAY & DVD BONUS FEATURES:

  • An Epic Confrontation– A deeper look at the film’s most significant scene and how the two actresses prepared for their characters first encounters.
  • Something About Marys – A behind the scenes look at how the Marys’ on-set chemistry was formed and how it created a bond between the entire cast and crew.
  • Tudor Feminism – An exploration of how Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth ruled in a time when men called the shots.
  • Feature Commentary with Director Josie Rourke and Composer Max Richter.

Go here to explore the Mary Queen of Scots website.

An American magazine has published an article titled ‘Was Shakespeare a Woman?’ In response, we have written an article titled ‘SHAKESPEARE DERANGEMENT SYNDROME’

The Atlantic, a US magazine founded in 1857, has published an article by Elizabeth Winkler titled ‘Was Shakespeare a Woman?’. The answer of course is no, but while it’s deplorable that The Atlantic would do this, it’s not actually surprising. Elements of the US cultural elite, just like their counterparts here in the UK, have a long and inglorious history of Shakespeare denialism.

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To cite just one example, no less an institution than the Smithsonian has had a particularly egregious advocacy of ‘Oxfordian theory’ on its website for as long as I can remember. So I’ve come to realise that rich, clever and sophisticated people are often complete and utter fruitcakes, and our American cousins are not exempt from this.

The Atlantic itself has published this type of thing before during its lengthy lifespan, and Winkler merely takes all the arguments routinely deployed by anti-Stratfordians over the past century and adds a feminist twist. Who knows, maybe she got the idea from the cinematic font of wisdom that was St Trinians 2.

However, I do think the Winkler article is also symptomatic of what’s happening in the culture at large. Because we should have evolved to the point where an article like this could no longer be published, except in the crankier recesses of internet obscurity. But we are living at a time when the media, the political class and the universities have veered so far off course that they are in danger of losing all credibility with much of the public. I think of it as The Great Derangement, and Shakespeare Derangement Sydrome is just one facet of the overall malaise.

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Apart from its modish feminist gloss, the Winkler article reads like every other anti-Stratfordian screed I’ve ever trawled through. It’s quite old-fashioned. I say this without malice, as I’m quite old-fashioned too, but apart from a sprinkling of contemporary references, it feels like it’s coming from the 1960s or ’70s. It’s ironic indeed that for a woman who claims Shakespeare was a woman, Winkler herself writes like an old bloke.

Anyway, Winkler’s candidate for the authorship is Emilia Bassano. She’s been known by a number of names and a variety of spellings, so for clarity I will stick to this version of her married name: Emilia Lanier.

Reading the Winkler article, which is pretty long, I groan inwardly when she goes to meet Emilia’s “most ardent champion”, a geezer named John Hudson, who published a headache-inducing book on the subject in 2014. Winkler says “His zeal can sometimes get the better of him”, and she is not wrong.

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In fact, Hudson is a textbook Shakespeare Conspiracy Theorist. The formula is always the same:

1. “There is a secret message in the works of Shakespeare revealing the true author!”

2. “I alone have cracked the code!” (“Because I am so much cleverer than everyone else…”)

3. “Here it is! Is it not amazing?”

4. “What? You don’t believe me? What manner of imbecile are you!”

The article continues with Hudson and Winkler parsing Shakespeare’s works for evidence of Emilia’s hand. The thing is, if you pick any person who was writing during Shakespeare’s lifetime (and quite a few who weren’t) you could similarly identify any number of references that made them the author. It’s an easy game to play once you get in the swing of it. Indeed, I’m surprised no one has thus far identified Pocahontas as the author of Shakespeare’s works. Watch this space.

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Emilia’s advocates also believe she was Jewish and dark-skinned, so Winkler invokes Maya Angelou, deliberately misunderstanding the late author’s famous line to the effect that “Shakespeare must be a black girl”. [Read an excellent article on Maya Angelou’s love of Shakespeare here]

Finally, Winkler gets round to discussing Emilia’s own poetry. “Her writing style bears no obvious resemblance to Shakespeare’s” she concludes. Well, no.

With grinding inevitability, Winkler proceeds to her final destination, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London. I know it seems a bit like saying Buckingham Palace is a hotbed of anti-monarchism, but Shakespeare’s Globe has long been strangely ambivalent (at best) about the man from Stratford-upon-Avon whose name it trades under. In his 2007 book on Shakespeare, Bill Bryson describes the Globe under former Artistic Director Mark Rylance as “a kind of clearinghouse for anti-Stratford sentiment”.

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At the Globe, Winkler attends the annual meeting of the Shakespeare Authorship Trust, which I imagine as being like a scene from Eyes Wide Shut. With Rylance as its figurehead, the Trust has considered the merits of dozens of authorship candidates over the years, before settling on… all of them! No, wait. The last time I checked, they were fighting an “Anyone But Shakespeare” campaign. In recent months they seem to have opted for an “Authorship By Secret Committee” theory, and have even given our mate William a seat at the table. How kind.

The Globe’s latest Artistic Director is Michelle Terry, and one of the first things she did was to commission a new play, Emilia, which features Shakespeare plagiarising from the titular heroine. There is no historical evidence for this, naturally, but it also occurs in Sally O’Reilly’s 2014 novel Dark Aemilia. Contemporary writers seem to love the idea of Shakespeare being a fraud. Presumably it eases the pain of knowing that the only reason anyone will remember them is as a footnote to Shakespeare.

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Incidentally, I get the impression that these are troubled times for The Globe. It’s just announced a two-year delay to its ambitious ‘Project Prospero’ expansion scheme, and its current production of Henry IV Part 2 has reportedly been playing to half-empty houses.

Michelle Terry has previously stated that her tenure at the Globe has “a socialist agenda”. Hopefully she’s not using Venezuela as her model.

But back to Elizabeth Winkler and her article in The Atlantic. ‘Was Shakespeare a Woman?’ has already found an audience. The publication has quite a big following and dodgy Shakespeare clickbait has long been a reliable attention-grabber for a media that is running dangerously low on both ideas and integrity.

But at least some of The Atlantic’s readers will be thinking: “If they can be this wrong about Shakespeare, what else are they wrong about?” before arriving at the sobering conclusion: possibly everything.

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In the article itself, Winkler dreams of her revelations dealing “a blow to the cultural patriarchy” so that women could “at last claim their rightful authority as historical and intellectual forces…”

It’s heady stuff, and any push-back by rational people will no doubt be decried as abuse, harassment, bullying and, wait for it, hate speech.

Because, while the leading fruitcakes of the Great Derangement are constantly telling us we’re living in the 1930s, we’re really not. We’re actually living in 4BC, with dozens of fervid religious cults all vying for supremacy. What this is really about is not that Shakespeare was a woman – he wasn’t. But it is necessary for the purposes of the cult that its adherents accept and proclaim that Shakespeare was a woman. Cults always demand that their followers believe the unbelievable, it is a means of uniting them against the world they wish to ultimately conquer.

We live in an age of identity politics, and almost every identity group I can think of comes with its own pet Shakespeare authorship theory and preferred candidate. So it is highly likely that the hacks at The Atlantic will be walking this path again.

To quote from the man himself, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”

Shakespeare Magazine is an independent online publication for everyone who loves Shakespeare. Read our latest issue completely FREE here.

Buy Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? by James Shapiro.

The Oxfraud website for in-depth debunking of anti-Stratfordian thought.

Book tickets for Henry IV Part 2 at Shakespeare’s Globe.

The curious case of the Henry V-quoting toddler who saved Shakespeare Magazine from certain and ignominious doom (as recounted by his proud and admiring father, the Editor)

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My abiding memory of the very first issue of Shakespeare Magazine, published five years ago this week, is that it very nearly didn’t happen at all. I remember rising at about 5am feeling frazzled, fearful and sleep-deprived, and tweeting something like “Right, let’s go to work” to convey a bravado I didn’t feel.

I’d taken redundancy only 19 days earlier, and although I’d been thinking non-stop about Shakespeare Magazine for over a year, this was surely one of the swiftest launches in media history, and I was overwhelmed. I had always intended to get the first issue out on 23 April 2014, which would have been Shakespeare’s 450th birthday. But there was just too much still to do, and my hopes were fading fast.

Originally I’d been working from the kitchen of my Bristol home. But I’d had to move into the spare bedroom because the WiFi signal was stronger. I’d fallen into a cycle of working late into the night and then crashing out on the bed right next to the desk where my ancient Russian computer hummed and spluttered. And on this particular day I had company. My young son was running a fever, so instead of taking him to nursery I’d installed him in the bed beside me. This way I could keep an eye on him while I worked.

By the early afternoon I was firmly ensconced in a slough of despond. The mag wasn’t going to come out today, it simply couldn’t be done. Maybe it would happen tomorrow, maybe it wouldn’t happen at all.

And then something remarkable occurred. My son woke up, having shrugged off his illness and now looking as fit as the proverbial butcher’s dog. He gave me a cheeky grin and said, in what I can only describe as a mischievous tone, these words:

“Once more [pause] unto the breach [pause], dear friends.” [pause, chuckle]

I was flabbergasted. Of course, my son was used to hearing me spouting plenty of Shakespeare lines (and trying to get him to repeat them), but these words, from one of Henry V’s most stirring speeches, just stopped me dead in my tracks. He’d even remembered to say ‘unto’ instead of ‘into’.

And yes, in my semi-delirious state, I did take it as a sign that today of all days I must persevere. A phone call from my freelance Art Editor did the rest: “Right, where’s these final pages, then? Get yer finger out and we can still do this”. Well, that’s not all he said, but the language was more Anglo-Saxon than Shakespearean, if you catch my drift.

And so it was that Issue One of Shakespeare Magazine was published at around nine o’ clock that evening. To be honest, it’s always been a struggle, but I’m currently working on Issue 16, and I still love it.

Oh, and when this happened my estimable offspring was a couple of weeks shy of his third birthday. So this is really a story about how a two-year-old saved Shakespeare Magazine. Thanks, son.

Shakespeare Magazine 15 is celebrating 50 years of Franco Zeffirelli’s unforgettable 1960s film production of Romeo and Juliet!

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Issue 15 of Shakespeare Magazine celebrates 50 years of Franco Zeffirelli’s classic film of Romeo and Juliet.

We have an exclusive interview with Juliet herself, Olivia Hussey, along with readers’ memories of R & J, and an account of growing up (and old) with the film by Editor Pat Reid.

Also this issue, we have an exclusive extract from Paterson Joseph’s memoir Julius Caesar and Me, and we also take a look at Ben Elton’s Upstart Crow, and chat to Australian Shakespeare star Kate Mulvany.

Plus loads more, including Shakespeare with Subtitles, Shakespeare in Schools, and the beautiful Shakespeare Doodles of Gary Andrews.

Here’s the full list of contents:

Three gorgeous covers celebrating 50 years of Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet.

An exclusive interview with Juliet herself, Olivia Hussey.

The Editor writes about growing up with Romeo and Juliet.

The Readers remember Romeo and Juliet.

And that’s just for starters! Also this issue…

Want to enjoy Shakespeare more? Try using Subtitles!

How Ben Elton’s Upstart Crow took flight.

The beautiful Shakespeare doodles of Gary Andrews.

Revisiting Ian McKellen’s thrilling Richard III film.

Scandal! Why is Shakespeare Uncovered not being shown in the UK?

Does Shakespeare belong in schools?

Antony Sher’s Year of the Mad King reviewed.

The treasures of the Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive.

An exclusive extract from Paterson Joseph’s Julius Caesar and Me.

Why Australian Shakespeare star Kate Mulvany feels Richard III’s pain.

Oh, there’s also a really good Mercutio anecdote in the Editor’s intro.

And you’re going to love what’s coming up next issue

Wishing a Happy, Peaceful and Prosperous 2019 to all our readers!

An urgent message from the Editor: We need your help to survive! Please donate to Shakespeare Magazine to help keep us alive and moving forward into 2019.

From Shakespeare Magazine Editor Pat Reid:

Hello, and thank you for reading this. It’s the time of year when generous people are donating to their favourite causes, so I’m asking once again for your help to keep Shakespeare Magazine alive.

The simplest way to donate to Shakespeare Magazine is via PayPal.

The magazine is currently surviving on donations and patronage, so anything you can afford to give is greatly appreciated.

One exceptionally generous lady in the USA has been donating as much as $1,000 per month. This will end shortly, so if we can find another donor (or donors) to match that amount it would be hugely helpful in ensuring the magazine’s survival.

If you are considering making a large donation and wish to know more, please feel free to contact me directly. My email is: shakespearemag@outlook.com

Meanwhile, here’s a brief report on the magazine’s recent activity:

It’s been a productive few weeks. I’ve written a lot of articles, and given much-needed updates to both the website and the newsletter service. Our Facebook and Twitter continue to do well, while the most recent issue of the magazine (14) is now our fourth most popular ever, and still rising.

Right now I’m working on Issue 15. Thus far, the Art Editor has sent over a total of 32 pages, so we should be ready to publish next week. We’re also giving the magazine a slight redesign, to keep the visuals fresh and try out some new styles.

From a purely selfish point of view, it would be wonderful not to have to worry about money and instead just concentrate on publishing the magazine, and making it as good as possible. Hope you can help!

I’ll leave you with some lines from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 38:

“If my slight Muse do please these curious days,
The pain be mine, but thine shall be the praise.”

Very best wishes,

Pat Reid – Founder & Editor, Shakespeare Magazine

“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.

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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.

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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.

Celebrating 50 years of Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare Magazine Editor Pat Reid writes about growing up and growing old with a Shakespearean cinematic masterpiece – and its eternally youthful stars, Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey.

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“But you sound just like Leonard!” exclaims the voice at the end of the telephone. “Exactly like him, it’s uncanny!”The voice that’s saying this is Olivia Hussey’s. The voice that she’s saying it about is mine. Fifty years ago, when she was just 15, Olivia starred as Juliet in Franco Zeffirelli’s film of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The Leonard to whom she refers is Leonard Whiting, then 17, her co-star who played Romeo. It’s all documented in her recent book The Girl on the Balcony. To have my voice compared to Leonard’s is a major compliment. I want to respond with a witty quip like “I bet you say that to all the Romeos…” – but there’s an interview to do.

I first saw Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet when I was around the age Olivia was when she starred in it. My relationship with the film, and with the play it’s based on (and with the characters in it) has certainly evolved over the passing decades. The first time I saw it, in a mid-’80s classroom of an all-boys school, it was the sword fights that excited me most, to be honest. Having said that, Olivia’s radiant vivacity as Juliet, and the emotional rush of her love affair with Leonard’s sensitive-yet-athletic Romeo, must have seemed a kind of dream version of what life would surely hold in store.

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When I saw it again in my mid-twenties I was taken aback by how deliriously romantic it all was. The film is both opulent and gritty, a bacchanalian feast of the screen. I was now much older than Olivia’s Juliet, but still far too young to understand what was really going on in the film.​In my early forties I became both a father for the first time, and a born again Shakespearean. This is when Romeo and Juliet becomes every parent’s worst nightmare. You do everything you can to bring your kids up right, and they go and fall madly in love – and end up dead. Yes, it’s funny when I put it like that, but really it’s terrifying.

Watching the film in middle age, I also noticed for the first time how Shakespeare’s words were bursting with an overwhelming beauty that was matched note for note by Nino Rota’s musical score – one of the all-time great movie soundtracks.

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I noticed other things too. How Lady Capulet (played by Natasha Parry) was not in fact an evil old bag, but a dignified, concerned and rather beautiful young mother. At this point I could hardly fail to see how Romeo and Juliet was absolutely crammed with performances that in any other film would have been breakouts. From Pat Heywood as Juliet’s Nurse, to Michael York as an imperious, flashing-eyed Tybalt – not forgetting the demented swagger of John McEnery’s Mercutio, and Robert Stephens embodying authority as the Prince – it’s an embarrassment of riches.Finally I watched it again this year, 2018, the year that the film and myself both turn 50. Everything I’ve written above is still true, but watching the film after reading Olivia’s book puts a different light on things. Indeed, her book shines a light into all the nooks and crannies of the film.

My most recent viewing of the film took place after reading her book, but actually speaking to Olivia was a precious experience. She is a custodian of the memory of Romeo and Juliet, and the keeper of its secrets. “I’ve never told anyone that before,” she said, after sharing a detail about her famously gruelling audition process for the film, “I only just remembered it now”.

Indeed, Zeffirelli’s casting process would probably be impossible – or illegal – today, but its result was perfection. In 1960s London there were a lot of beautiful, talented young men and women. But Romeo and Juliet had to be beautiful together in the right way, a complementary beauty that made them both shine more brightly, not a situation where one cancelled the other out.

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There have been other Romeo and Juliet films before and since, of course. The 1954 version with Laurence Harvey is almost forgotten now, forever eclipsed by Zeffirelli’s ’60s supernova. The 1936 production is seen as a historical curio, with Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer, aged 43 and 33, far too old for the roles.Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 update, styled Romeo + Juliet, succeeded because it made itself as different as possible from Franco Zeffirelli’s. But while I’ve met countless women who fell in love with Leonardo DiCaprio’s Romeo, I’ve yet to meet a man who fell in love with Claire Danes as Juliet. We admire her as an actress – she’s one of the few in Hollywood who can actually move her face – but we don’t want to die for her.

And a 2013 film of Romeo and Juliet cast Douglas Booth and Hailee Steinfeld in the lead roles. They looked every bit like a Renaissance painting, but alas the chemistry was lacking – the pair seemed more like amused, conspiratorial siblings than Shakespeare’s tragic, star cross’d lovers.

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And that’s why Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet is not just one of the greatest Shakespeare films ever made, it’s one of the greatest films of any kind ever made.Yes, he took liberties with Shakespeare, but you can tell it’s a film made by someone who’s in love with Shakespeare, in love with Romeo and Juliet, in love with life, and in love with love. Watch it today, or soon, to celebrate its 50th anniversary – and be sure to raise a glass to Franco, to Leonard and to Olivia. Their Romeo and Juliet is, and will always be, an intoxicating experience.

All images courtesy of Paramount. Watch out for a full interview with Olivia Hussey in the next issue of Shakespeare Magazine.

Attention! Leading experimental theatre company Forced Entertainment are calling on everyone to help them – by sharing a livestream of their unique Table Top presentation of all 36 of Shakespeare’s plays, performed with the aid of household objects…

Terry O'Connor
Beginning this Friday 26 October and running until Saturday 3 November, Forced Entertainment are to livestream Complete Works: Table Top Shakespeare - each of Shakespeare’s 36 plays condensed and presented on a table top over nine days, using a cast of ordinary household objects.
The durational production by the internationally recognised experimental theatre group, features objects such as pepper pots, knives and forks and cheese graters in place of Shakespeare’s characters.
Jerry Killick in action
Originally devised and performed in 2015, Complete Works will be presented at and livestreamed from SPILL Ipswich, between 26 October and 3 November, giving those who aren’t able to make it to the Festival the opportunity to see all of the hour-long pieces.
For the first time ever, the livestream of Complete Works will include 12 subtiled performances: Coriolanus, King John, As You Like It, The Taming of the Shrew, Richard II, Much Ado About Nothing, Macbeth, Henry IV Part 1, Measure for Measure, All’s Well That Ends Well, Timon of Athens and Hamlet.
Forced Entertainment is working with SPILL Festival of Performance, and the livestream will appear on both the festival’s website and Forced Entertainment’s. The livestream will also be shared on Facebook and cross-posted to BBC Arts Online and BBC Shakespeare. The livestream has been commissioned by The Space.
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The livestream will appear on Forced Entertainent’s website and Facebook page. Please tag @ForcedEnts when sharing the event on Twitter and Instagram and use the hashtag #CompleteWorksLive to join in the conversation.