1 - Why Shakespeare?



Emma Smith: there are wonderful riches of poetry and language. There are wonderful short story types and wonderful characters who are recognizable to us and show us aspects of all of human life in different ways.


Emma Smith: I think one of the extraordinary things about Shakespeare is he is almost always seemed to be relevant. Different things have been relevant at different times.


Emma Smith: And so there are ways Shakespeare can speak to us now because the things he's talking about never went away or we've always been interested in them


Welcome to some of the richest poetry ever written. Welcome to some of the world’s most enduring stories and characters.


William Shakespeare was a playwright who lived and wrote in England in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Today, four hundred years later, his work is read and performed all around the world. In this audio series, we will introduce you to his life and work. In this first course, we look at Shakespeare and his time in history. In each later course we look at one of his plays, guided by discussion with a top Shakespearean scholar.


These courses won’t assume you’ve already read the play. So you can use the course to enrich your understanding after reading the play or as preparation before reading. We’ll start by providing essential background, context, and a complete plot summary. Then, we’ll move into a discussion of the play’s central themes, questions, characters, and elements of language. Finally, we’ll listen to Shakespearean actors perform key speeches from the play, and hear our featured scholar’s analysis of that speech.


This series is called “Shakespeare for All” because, whoever you are, this series is for you. Maybe you don’t know a lot about Shakespeare. Maybe you think you don’t know anything. But you do know the name. And for some reason, that name sparked your curiosity. Who is Shakespeare? What did he write about? Why is he so famous? In this introductory course, we’re going to address these questions. We’ll also discuss how toread Shakespeare--and why. We’ll look at strategies that will help you find your own interest and pleasure in the plays from your very first reading, and explore what exactly makes these plays worth reading for a lifetime. To think about these questions, we spoke with some experts on Shakespeare.


Emma Smith: Hi, I'm Emma Smith. I'm professor of Shakespeare Studies at the University of Oxford in the UK.


According to Professor Smith, Shakespeare has continued to speak to readers and audiences through the years because his plays deal with things that time doesn’t change--and so they resonate with the urgent issues of every age.


Emma Smith: So there are ways in which Shakespeare's plays are relevant to us because they speak very specifically to things about our own, our own time or our own moment.


Emma Smith: One of my favorite examples is this a play about the Trojan War, about the classical period discussed in the Iliad for Troilus and Cressida. Never been a popular play. It may never have even been performed in Shakespeare's lifetime, and we never really knew what to make of it. It's a play about forces two to two opposing forces locked in a war. Nobody really knows why it started. Nobody knows who's in the right. Nobody knows how they're going to get out of it. It's a cynical post, heroic kind of a play. We never, as I say, we never really understood what to do with it. And it was American productions during the time of the Vietnam War, which really found this play and found the moment for it and found ways of understanding it. So Shakespeare's plays can come back to us at different times and be suddenly relevant in ways that we hadn't anticipated.


One reason Shakespeare’s plays find such unexpected new meanings is that they’ve traveled so far from their original setting. Because Shakespeare was essentially England’s national author, English people brought Shakespeare with them as they traveled around the world trading and establishing colonies.


Emma Smith: And they go with the English language really across the globe in some great ways, in some great globalising ways and in more negative ways as part of empire. And the legacies of the way Britain tried to impose itself on different populations. So they the plays right along with the spread of the English language across the globe. So there's also practical reasons how Shakespeare became Shakespeare, but there are some intrinsic ones, too.


I think the reason Shakespeare lends himself to all that travel is a kind of openness in his plays. I think Shakespeare was never that topical. And so because he was not particularly well rooted in certain ways in the fashions of his own period, he's been more available to us in reading and thinking and creativity and performance and translation ever since. To sort of remake four different times in different places.


And now Shakespeare is available to you, for you to read and think about and get creative with. That’s how to think about starting your conversation with Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s plays aren’t a task to get through or a duty to perform. They’re like a multiverse, dozens of different and exciting new worlds, for you to chart your own way through, taking the paths that youfind most interesting.


Emma Smith: You're not doing it for an exam. You're not doing it for a test … So you could pick and choose the bits that you enjoy and the bits that speak to you, the kinds of plays or the kinds of characters or the kinds of moments.


 You can dip in and out for bits that seem to have a kind of poetry that speak to you or have a kind of dynamic that speak to you. So I think it is worth trying to find your own way, your own way to enjoy Shakespeare.


Beyond the plays’ wonderful characters and storylines, part of the great pleasure of Shakespeare lies in becoming connected to the thousands, the millions of other people who have also read his plays and found something in them that illuminates their own lives—however vastly different all those lives may be.


Emma Smith: Being part of a Shakespeare conversation is to be is to speak across across countries and across times and to be in a kind of dialogue, which is an extraordinary privilege. You know, people have been reading or performing a play like King Lear for centuries. And we can kind of coincide with them over this shared ground.


You may find, of course, that Shakespeare’s plays don’t speak to certain things that are important to you--or that you disagree with what they say. That’s okay, too. We should approach Shakespeare like a person, not a god. We should talk with him, question him, argue with him, and make those arguments part of the vast global conversation that audiences and artists have been having with Shakespeare for centuries. Being able to join in that conversation can enrich your life, just as the plays can. And it’s in that conversation, in the room with all of us, that Shakespeare really comes alive.


Emma Smith: Ultimately, I think the reason Shakespeare is so important and so worthwhile. The reason I would urge you to have a go, have a go in whatever way is available to you is because I think. Contrary to what we often assume about Shakespeare, this is this. This is a body of writing which has got room for us. So I've written up a bit about equality and checks, which I call gappiness, and by gappiness, I mean, there's lots of ambiguity.


There's lots of things that are not resolved, the questions that are asked and answered. There are lots of holes in motivational plotting or description or sense of even the action that happens. And these are all places for us to kind of get in there and complete the plays. In a way that works now or works without experience or a sense of the world. And. I think some people that's a liberation. I hope that's a liberation.


I think for other people, it's...it feels it contradicts maybe ways they've thought about Shakespeare before that …Shakespeare there was a message in Shakespeare's plays and that our job is to try and find that message and to work out what he was trying to say to us. I don't think that that is what Shakespeare is like for me, that Shakespeare is not trying to send me a message.


And it's not my job as an interpreter to work out what that message is. I think Shakespeare for me has created this spacious work with these kind of holes in it that we can breathing we can thinking we can take part in and the plays. Our only complete when we are there just I mean, just like a play. I guess only happens really if there's an audience. I think the plays only happen if we are there to complete them.


So if you want to take part in the magic of Shakespeare, if you want to find ways to bring his plays to life for yourself, then keep listening.


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    We should talk with him, question him, argue with him, and make those arguments part of the vast global conversation that audiences and artists have been having with Shakespeare for centuries.

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