Play Your Part- Share Your Shakespeare

Shakespeare is studied in school by over 50% of the world’s population. No other creative figure from history is studied by more than 1% or 2%. As the world marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, we ask: what is his extraordinary power?

His power lies in his mastery of the dramatic, not the literary - of human experience rather than scholarship. We misrepresent him when we call him our greatest poet or writer. Theatre can only be created of the here-and-now and so is necessarily contemporary. However ancient the text, it can only be presented by real people in specific places in actual time - and it can only be given life by a receptive audience. This is what makes any Shakespeare play contemporary, and what accounts for millions of people finding relevance and personal truth in what they see.

And what contemporariness! In 2016 we can list most of the global issues of our times and find deep Shakespearean resonance:

- Refugees (from Comedy of Errors to The Winter’s Tale)

- The clash of civilisations (from Troilus and Cressida to Antony and Cleopatra)

- Gang warfare and urban fracture (from Romeo and Juliet to Coriolanus)

- Tyranny (from Richard III to Macbeth)

- Just war and the just assassination (from Henry V to Julius Caesar)

- Racism and prejudice (from Merchant of Venice to Othello)

- Inequality and poverty (from King Lear to Timon of Athens)

- Imprisonment and punishment (from Measure for Measure to Two Noble Kinsmen)

- Servitude and slavery (from Taming of the Shrew to The Tempest)

- Debt crises (from Timon of Athens to Merchant of Venice)

And we could add: explorations of government, leadership, law, justice, corruption, diplomacy, social mobility and - certainly in every comedy - how to make communities work.

Even the narrative of contemporary British identity is marked out: from Lear’s division of the kingdom to the restoration of Scotland in Macbeth, from the panorama of Welsh, Scottish, Irish and English viewpoints in the history plays to what characterizes “this England” in Richard II.

“The world must be peopled” and Shakespeare was the most intense analyser of the vital importance of tolerating people’s differences. A contemporary take on diversity emanates from all his plays – gender (women solve most of his comedies), class, age, ethnicity, sexuality, disability and religion.

Above all we celebrate Shakespeare’s awesome human insight, recognised by every commentator since Ben Jonson championed him as “not of an age but for all time”. Shakespeare is the world’s voice for greed, lust, anger, jealousy, hypocrisy and betrayal - but also for mercy, loyalty, justice, friendship, honour, respect - and for love, which is the most fundamental dynamic of the worlds that he created.

And in this commemoration year, we remember that Shakespeare was also our greatest explorer of the “undiscovered country” of mortality. Actors, audiences, “this great globe” itself will “fall and cease,” leaving “not a wrack behind”. But Shakespeare himself will survive – the man who, somehow, left us everything.

Paul Smith, Director, British Council USA

06 January 2016 20:32