Remembering The Surprisingly Modern Bard, 400 Years On
Literature lovers, actors, poets, playwrights and just about anyone with an affection for the English language respects and delights in the works of William Shakespeare. The “Bard of Avon” is known for his spectacular string of plays and sonnets, produced within a relatively short lifetime, by modern standards. Shakespeare died at the age of 52, on April 23, 1616.
Shakespeare fans around the world have marked the 400th anniversary of this death this year, mounting productions of his plays and more, with Shenandoah Conservatory included. This year’s performance season included “Reflections on Shakespeare,” featuring Shakespeare’s works, reflected through a variety of lenses, including a jazz ensemble performance of Duke Ellington’s “Such Sweet Thunder,” one of twelve suites from Ellington’s album based on the works of Shakespeare, as well as performances of “Romeo and Juliet” and “Illyria,” which is a musical re-telling of the comedy “Twelfth Night.” And, Conservatory Associate Professor of Theatre Carolyn Coulson, Ph.D., an early drama expert, will attend the World Shakespeare Congress this summer in Stratford-Upon-Avon, England.
The anniversary hasn’t passed unbidden by Shenandoah’s English faculty, either. “Although Shakespeare left us 400 years ago, the consistent human relevance of his themes still excites me, as it does audiences worldwide,” said Assistant Professor of English Rachael Hammond, M.A., who embraces interdisciplinary views with her Shakespeare scholarship. In a Shakespeare course, she has focused on Shakespeare and leadership, with the class examining “key business ideas such as strategic planning, succession planning, leader confidence, mentoring and rebranding, as they appear in Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies – as well as some histories and comedies.
“We also of course look at tragic flaws; the study is timely, as many recent studies explore problems with narcissism, for instance, in corporate America. Ultimately, students consider the tragic flaws and the strengths and weaknesses of the Bard’s characters to strategize how *they themselves* can be better leaders. The idea is not only to enjoy the plays in and of themselves but also to explore their modern-day application to readers’ and viewers’ daily lives.”
Considering her deep affection for Shakespeare and her willingness to use the Elizabethan writer’s work to elicit insights about the contemporary world, we asked Hammond a few questions about Shakespeare during this momentous year.
Why do we still study Shakespeare?
Hammond: We still study Shakespeare because the Bard’s works present universal themes. The stories transcend time, cultures, and values. Although the characters are unique – and often impressive in their individual achievements – their passions, concerns, and flaws render them eternally relevant. We still study Shakespeare because we readers and audience members, as human beings, have remained imperfect. We can still appreciate the shortcomings in others and wince in recognizing those shortcomings within ourselves.
What do we still have to learn about Shakespeare and his works? What is left to study at this point?
Hammond: Because Shakespeare’s stories are timeless and universal in their human themes, the need to read and to reread them never ends. Each experience with the text or the performance reveals new insights into the characters and their stories.
Recently, many scholars have forged new ground in examining Shakespeare through interdisciplinary lenses, however. This field of study, then, only seems to expand with the passing of time and the willingness to blend and cross perspectives on these texts.
Four hundred years later, how do we remember Shakespeare as a person and historical figure? Is it an accurate remembering? What were the realities of his life?
Hammond: Most people, even those who don’t enjoy reading, are familiar with the name of the Bard and at least some of his achievements. For Americans, William Shakespeare should remain an important figure for study. While he received some education, Shakespeare sought out much learning through his travel and experiences. Americans have long valued the importance of self-improvement.
In addition, one can only assume that Shakespeare’s great plays were not only the products of his own great imagination and ability to navigate through sources (prominent historical texts and even folk tales of his day), but also the result of great friendships and collaboration with the artists and longtime colleagues of his theatre troupes. William Shakespeare’s entrepreneurial spirit in seeking out business opportunities (such as the theatre projects) and in leveraging the power of networking (such as with very different monarchs and with members of his troupe), in some ways renders this British author an example of some of the most extolled American values today.
Many high school graduates, at least in years past, have had the experience of memorizing Shakespearean monologues or sonnets for English classes. Why was this a common exercise? Is there a benefit to memorizing language?
Hammond: Difficulties with memorization sometimes result from looking at a monologue’s words individually when one should actually study the entire meaning of the passage. Once one understands the whole meaning of the passage, memorization is easier. This is true for remembering any lines from any play, however. For hundreds of years, Shakespeare’s language has “set the bar,” so to speak, for demonstrating one’s literacy. The language in itself is beautiful, of course, but the ability to recall the passages signifies a person who is culturally literate and perhaps aware of the valuable themes of the great stories. A person who reads and recalls the monologues of Shakespeare might be more likely to become a wise person. Meanwhile, a person who is unfamiliar with the great works will likely miss out on rich allusions in both other works of art and in daily life itself.
In general, one can probably benefit from memorizing language – or math patterns for that matter. The ability to recall information, including information in sequences, can facilitate smoother conversations, an immediate benefit of memorization. Using the “memory muscles” of the brain is probably beneficial for staving off dementia, as well. As we in the human species increase our life expectancy, we might wish to keep our wit and wits sharp, so memorization could also facilitate some long-term benefits.
Shakespeare’s sonnets can also provide opportunities for memorization skills development. As sonnets are only fourteen lines each, the act of memorizing such a poem might not be as daunting for the students. During the Renaissance, people not only celebrated the arts but also – and more generally – human potential. The idea of creating or memorizing something seemed possible. Artists and thinkers confidently embraced challenge, artifice and beauty. In these and other ways, then, the pride in being human set the stage for deeper scientific questioning such as what we now might associate with Enlightenment approaches to learning and thinking.
What are some new or unique ways to enjoy Shakespeare’s works today? How can teachers leverage this anniversary to get students interested in the life and work of William Shakespeare?
Hammond: Attending play performances is always time well-spent. Creative directors frequently update the settings of the plays, providing new insights into the timeless tales. With the four hundredth anniversary, many organizations are hosting festivals of performances and other activities this year. For example, the Virginia Shakespeare Initiative has led many efforts in our area. The American Shakespeare Center, in Staunton, Virginia, is also world-renowned for its experienced and talented staff. The Folger Library and the University of Virginia have provided extensive displays this year, as well. These are just four key opportunities for learning and fun in our region.
Another wonderful resource, helpful even for world travelers, is playshakespeare.com. This web site includes background information, texts of both poems and plays, and other resources, such as BBC productions. It’s all at your fingertips, and it’s all free. The free app includes opportunities to find performances in countries all over the world and as well as a fun “passport” feature.
In the regular classroom, teachers can continue to relate the characters’ experiences to student lives, especially with the great tragedies. The flaws of Shakespeare’s kings, princes and generals happen to be the flaws of many “regular” human beings, too. The stories are cautionary and personally relevant. Relating Shakespeare, a Renaissance man, to today’s leaders of change, also highlights the Bard’s eternal relevance. Examining his works, especially his plays, in relation to business, psychology and other disciplines only serves to reinforce his continuing importance in our own time.
Photo Credit: C. King Photography