RAISING THE CURTAIN #8: “Why Shakespeare?” – by Maureen Sullivan

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You know there’s always that one friend who has a hobby you just can’t understand the point of? He or she is a dear, lovely person, but why on earth would they actually choose to spend a significant part of their life collecting stamps, learning the rules of rugby, fishing, or playing golf (apologies to anyone who pursues these specific activities). For some of my friends, I am that weird person who actually chooses to spend time not just watching, but actually acting in Shakespeare plays – why didn’t I heave a sigh of relief after my GCSEs at the thought of never having to translate a page of obscure Elizabethan poetry, full of jokes that aren’t funny, or even comprehensible? Like normal people do…

I don’t know, is the short answer.

By the age of about 13 when I first encountered Shakespeare at school, I had developed an interest in how human brains work, a curiosity about how other people think and see the world. Ok – my mother just said I was nosey. But as soon as I started to understand the language of the plays – and I think that is the hardest bit to get through – I quickly realised that this bloke who lived 400 years ago really understood people.

Most literature – think anything from Harry Potter to Dickens – present us with characters who are intrinsically good or bad. Uriah Heep is definitely, crawlingly obnoxious while David Copperfield is goody goody all through. If your name happens to be Weasley, you are good (except Percy of course) while if you have the bad luck to be a Malfoy…enough said.

But Macbeth is ‘valiant’, ‘brave’ – he has almost single-handedly won battles and saved Scotland. Yet he is ambitious…..The heroic young Prince Hamlet really ought to have listened to his dad and swiped off the King’s head within the first ten minutes of the play, but we understand why he doesn’t. Shakespeare gives us characters who are timeless, who wrestle with the same issues we still grapple with – self-doubt, greed, pride, jealousy, love and hate, wanting revenge – and at the same time his characters are capable of providing farce, slapstick comedy and general stupidity.

Most of all, Shakespeare’s characters are human – they have their good qualities and their faults and weaknesses. And they are all too familiar. You know those schoolgirl best friends who will always stick together and love each other – the ones who turn into a couple of bitches the moment a handsome man takes an interest in one of them…one minute it’s ‘Oh Helena, you’re so tall and willowy, I wish I was like you, the next it’s ‘You painted maypole!’ And that really creepy old bloke who thinks every woman fancies him…. Thinking about it, nowadays Falstaff might well be targeted by the #metoo movement, but safely confined onstage, he’s hilarious.

Of course, these plays were written back when people believed in fairies, the supernatural and so on – we’re far too sophisticated for all that now… Yeah? So why do we love Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and suchlike? Shakespeare was doing magic wizards 400 years before Tolkien and Rowling!

The other thing is, simply because he was around to direct, Shakespeare put in very few stage directions – the exception being wonderful moments like ‘Exit, pursued by a bear’ – so the plays are capable of being performed in so many ways, dependent on the director and actors. Is it ‘To sleep, to dream no more’… or….’To sleep – to dream. No more…’? The choice is yours.

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Midsummer Night’s Dream – Carisbrooke Castle (2019). (Photo: Paul Bird Photography)

So when we performed Midsummer Night’s Dream at Carisbrooke Castle last year, the fairies were not fairy-like – they were business people, led by their co-CEOs, Oberon and Titania, whose disagreements included physical violence and genuinely fearsome shouting on both sides. If the CEOs of a company are in dispute, the company suffers – in this case, the King and Queen of the Fairies, whose role it is to look after the earth, have caused storms, drought, fire, plague…. Once they agree to live in harmony and love each other, the world heals….hmm, Shakespeare is definitely still relevant today methinks.

Maureen Sullivan


This is the 8th in a series of “Raising The Curtain” posts, thank you Maureen!

If you would like to share an Island theatre story, to reminisce, let us know. We look forward to sharing your contributions.

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