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 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.
Emily Soon is a PhD candidate researching how early modern writers across a range of literary genres perceived the East Indies (principally, China, India and Southeast Asia) in early modern England. This blog was originally posted on Currently @ King’s.
International trade hurts local communities. It causes economic hardship at home and destroys the environment, while the culture of consumerism it fuels is destroying our values and way of life.
Similar sentiments to these recur across the media today: this so-called backlash against globalisation is said to have contributed to Brexit and the rise of Trump, and to have transformed the shape of political movements across the world. This pent-up frustration seems to be quintessentially twenty-first century, the disillusioned rant of a world no longer charmed by the siren song of free trade and borderless commerce.
And yet, the sentiments I began with are taken not from a present-day party political tract, but from a play written almost 400 years ago. While William Mountford’s amateur dramatic effort, The Launching of the Mary: Or the Seaman’s Honest Wife (ca. 1632-3), may not be able to rival the plays of William Shakespeare or Ben Jonson – for a start, we do not know if the single handwritten text held in the British Library archives was ever performed – it does encapsulate, poignantly, the profound anxieties that have long attended the idea of international trade. Continue reading Lessons in global commerce (from an early East India Company employee)→
From the Department of English at King's College London