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Sunday 27 May 2018

Shakespeare400: All the World's a stage: Shakespeare's big themes and characters relate to us all

English teacher Conor Murphy says Shakespeare's big themes and characters relate to all of us - young and old - because they are so compellingly real

A copy of William Shakespeare's The First Folio, 1623 sits on display at Sotheby's auction house in 2006
A copy of William Shakespeare's The First Folio, 1623 sits on display at Sotheby's auction house in 2006
James Earl Jones as Othello and Christopher Plummer as Iago in Shakespeare's 'Othello', 1981.
French actor Philippe Girard performs during a dressed rehearsal of William Shakespeare's "King Lear"
Nikolay Lazarev in the Theatre of Russian Army's performance of 'Hamlet' in Moscow.

'No, poor Tybalt," sigh. "He's all smashed."

My three year old was watching Shakespeare on Netflix. Okay, it was Gnomeo and Juliet, an animated cartoon that tells Shakespeare's famous tragedy as if it were happening to Elton John loving garden gnomes. More Shakespeare adjacent than an actual adaptation of one of his plays, like Shakespearean hundreds and thousands sprinkled on a 99 ice cream. Yet beneath all those prancing ceramics the basic plot of Romeo and Juliet survives (minus the ending, of course, it is aimed at small children remember).

But why?

What is it about Shakespeare's themes that make us keep coming back?

Shakespeare's themes are big. My son's reaction was based on the simple good versus evil conflict in many of Shakespeare's plays (it's important to note here that my son loves the baddies, Darth Vader's theme tune was the first 'song' my son learnt to sing).

Claudius, Edmund, Shylock are all, to various degrees, portrayed as characters devoid of any sense of empathy. Greed and avarice, other key themes, steer them towards acts that some may see as evil. Greed and avarice, there's a whiff of Celtic Tiger from those themes.

Pitted against the above line up are the likes of Hamlet, Cordelia and Portia. All seemingly good characters, all fighting against the tyranny and gluttony of their adversaries.

But is it that simple?


And this is why we keep coming back to Shakespeare's plays. All of the above characters are more than simply good or evil. Cordelia, to some, is a spoilt brat who won't give her aging father the simple pleasure of a hyperbolic profusion of her love. Hamlet's treatment of Ophelia is deplorable at times, but maybe typical of a privileged Prince such as himself. And Portia? Her racist reaction to Morocco's choosing the wrong casket, saying "let all of his complexion choose me so", doesn't endear us to her.

Shylock and the lads? Shylock and Edmund have both been treated abominably by the societies in which they live. Edmund's cry, "Now, gods, stand up for bastards!" is even more apposite for today's social order where non-traditional families have transitioned into the norm. Claudius is merely continuing on in the Machiavellian style that is the custom in his society and Gertrude does seem to love him, so he must have some redeeming qualities.

In Hamlet, it isn't good versus evil that pushes the play forward, it is jealousy. Hamlet's jealousy of Claudius' closeness to Hamlet's mother. Jealousy crops up most famously in Othello when Iago manipulates the Moor until the faithful Desdemona is killed. This core emotion, jealousy, is familiar to everyone. We have all experienced it either from within ourselves or aimed towards us.

Now we are getting closer to why we keep coming back to Shakespeare. Sex. According to Shane G. Casey, starring as The Duke in Fortune's Fool Production's upcoming reimagining of Measure for Measure (Ireland 1916), "it's all about sex, sex, sex…and relationships".

Measure for Measure centres around the loss of virginity, Romeo and Juliet is often seen as simply about two horny teenagers, neither Portia nor Bassanio hide from their lustful feelings, and Ophelia did know some very bawdy songs. Which brings us back to Othello and the core of the racism behind his downfall. It wasn't the fact that Othello was a black leader in a white world, it was the miscegenation that caused the most uproar. Iago tells Brabantino that "an old black ram is tupping your white ewe". For this Othello had to be punished, for this Desdemona had to die.

But what of Casey's final point? Relationships? Hal and Falstaff, Romeo and Mercutio, Hamlet and Horatio, Antonio and Bassanio, Lear and the Fool. All of these are the relationships, some even friendships, that are tested in Shakespeare's plays. Loyalties are verified through various stresses. Some survive, others are destroyed.

Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are the supreme example of this. An obviously loving couple brought low by their covetousness and over stretched ambition. A small family unit wanting more but doing so in a morally compromising way.

Is it this? Is it the family dynamic, the family responsibilities, that are often central to the conflicts and tensions present in a Shakespearean play, that make us return again and again?

We all have families. We might not have sisters as violent as Goneril and Regan or as pristine as Cordelia but we can all understand sibling rivalry (I have three sisters and I can safely say that none of them have ever plucked my eyes out, but I know that they want to). Does any farmer's son or daughter doubt the intrigue involved in passing along the farming "crown"?

King Lear is an old man who, like Hamlet before him, is trying to come to terms with the ultimate human experience; death. Hamlet goes through his own version of existential angst but it is in Lear that we see a man go through the requisite emotional turmoil necessary for a possible redemption. The sins of his lifetime seem to return at the beginning of the play only for him to finally confront and accept them by the end.

From the simple good versus evil, to greed, to jealousy, to relationships, to sex, to family, to death; Shakespeare's plays take us through every step of our seven stages. This is why we keep going back to his plays; they contain the story of us, of our lives. Each time we see one of his plays performed we see a bit of ourselves revealed.

My son likes Gnomeo and Juliet, even if I don't, but soon he will be "creeping like a snail unwillingly to school" where he will meet a more rounded, human, less gnome-filled, version of the story and my son, too, will come to love Shakespeare.

The author is a teacher at Rossa College, Skibbereen, Co Cork XXschool in Skibereen

Irish Independent

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