Productions of Shakespeare’s plays have been regularly used to comment on the political and public affairs of their performance moment – occasionally provoking heated responses. In 2017, for example, the Public Theatre’s production of Julius Caesar at Shakespeare in the Park prompted a media furore (led by Fox News), because the presentation of Caesar bore a striking resemblance to Donald Trump.
The Public Theatre, other news media, and Shakespeare scholars (such as Stephen Greenblatt) were quick to point out that Shakespeare’s play hardly condones the assassination of Caesar and that it explores, instead, the conspirators’ flawed and extreme reactions to a democracy under threat. But audience responses cannot be contained by a careful reading of the text, and, while a production may clearly announce its relevance to contemporary politics, it is difficult to pinpoint a specific application or to control public responses to it.
The Shakespeare Academy has been running at King’s for the past three years as a Widening Participation project. In 2017-18 we reached over 350 students, continuing to develop close partnerships with teachers and pupils at eight London state-funded secondary schools, from Key Stage 3 to GCSE. We run workshops with the students that investigate Shakespeare’s plays through seminar-style sessions, readings, and creative writing activities. Read more about the Shakespeare Academy here.
Below you can read some examples of creative writing by Years 9 and 10 students from our summer 2018 workshops. We asked them to imagine what Lady Macbeth might have written if she had left a suicide note. As you can see, the pieces are inspired by the imagery and language of the play, but re-imagined for a modern audience.
I was particularly encouraged by the ways in which students engaged with the gender politics of Macbeth. Their writings express the limitations of Lady Macbeth’s agency within early modern patriarchy with a subtlety that I found truly impressive. The entrants showcased below were chosen for their originality, insight and imaginative engagement with Shakespeare’s text. They express the individual poetic and creative voices of the students, while maintaining close adherence to the characterisation, imagery and tone of the play.
The Shakespeare Academy has been running at King’s for the past three years and I am very proud to have been involved from its inception. In 2017-18 we reached over 350 Widening Participation students, continuing to develop close partnerships with teachers and pupils at eight London state-funded secondary schools, from Key Stage 3 to GCSE. We’ve also run Teachers Days with the London Shakespeare Centre.
My role as administrator and workshop leader involves liaising with the schools, creating the programme for the Academy study days, supporting my colleagues in preparing individual sessions and delivering workshops myself. I am particularly passionate about inclusive access to education: my brother and I were the first in our family to obtain degrees. I also believe that engaging with Shakespeare in an interactive and creative way can help to break down perceived barriers by making the plays seem more accessible.
All ‘national curriculum’ students study Shakespeare (two plays at key stages 3 and at least one play at key stage 4). Many of the pupils we work with are from Black or Ethnic Minority backgrounds, or come from families where their parents or carers have not attended university. We give these students access to university-style learning to give them a taste of what they can expect. This makes Shakespeare’s plays a valuable common currency to reach groups who are under-represented in tertiary education. Also, plays such as Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet deal with important social and political issues – power, love, inter-generational conflict, gang warfare – that are still relevant today. The plays are useful tools for thinking about wider social concerns that are universally recognisable.
Every regime seeks to control the media. In the quest to dominate the official story, a repressive state might own the press outright (North Korea sits bottom of the 2018 World Press Freedom Index). It might sit tight with those who do (any British Prime Ministerial hopeful must bend the knee to Rupert Murdoch). It might restrict it (Google is making a limited search engine for China). Or it might simply undermine it: a racist tweet from Donald Trump is an effective distraction from ongoing scandals. Meanwhile, the American media’s ability to hold him to account is steadily eroded by accusations of fakery, disloyalty and partisanship.
Such tyrannical controls are hardly new, and early modern England faced its own media restrictions. Queen Elizabeth I famously claimed to want “no windows into men’s souls,” but with their reading material she proved less liberal. Throughout the last decade of her reign, her power waned and censorship tightened, until in 1599 the so-called Bishops’ Ban made the printing of satire a crime. Yet satire thrives on subversion, and the inflammatory material of the 1590s circulated away from the eyes of the state’s press-licensers. Handwritten copies of mischievous material passed from sympathiser to sympathiser, engendering more copies as they went.
Just such a privately circulated manuscript emerged in December 2016. Working through a tin trunk of scraps at Westminster Abbey, Matthew Payne, Keeper of the Muniments, uncovered a small booklet written in an early seventeenth-century hand, containing a work by the poet John Donne (1572–1631). It proved to be a copy of Donne’s Catalogus Librorum Satyricus, known in English as The Courtier’s Library, a satirical list of fake books whose composition we can now date securely to 1603 or early 1604.
by Hailey Bachrach, PhD candidate researching gender in early modern history plays in collaboration with Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, @hbachrach.
If you’ve heard of director Phyllida Lloyd’s Shakespeare Trilogy, which debuted at the Donmar Warehouse from 2012 to 2016 and was released in full on BBC iPlayer on 17 June, you’ve probably heard of its premise: it is performed by a company made up entirely of women, and framed as plays put on by a group of female prisoners. The three plays—Julius Caesar, Henry IV (the two parts combined into one), and The Tempest—are all intimately concerned with questions of masculinity and male relationships—fathers, brothers, sons—and are all notoriously light on female characters.
The prison framing device means, however, that they are not devoid of a female presence. There is no attempt at prosthetics or illusion in the production’s costumes. The actors wear prison-issue grey sweatpants and t-shirts, with accessories to designate changes of character. When Henry IV opened in 2014, Harriet Walter, who stars in all three productions, wrote that ‘our neuter prison garb … helps the audience put aside any questions of “Are they men playing women or women playing men?”… I would argue that when the cast are all women, we can look beyond gender to our common humanity’.