Learning Lines

What's all the fuss about?

November 7, 2013

In today's blog I'm going to let someone else do the talking. Bella is a thirteen year old pupil at St Helen & St Katherine School in Abingdon, who, with two team-mates, recently won a school public speaking contest with a speech entitled 'Shakespeare: what's all the fuss about?'

When she was preparing her speech Bella emailed Nick Day, a family friend and RSC actor currently in rehearsals for Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, to get an actor's perspective on why Shakespeare is still special today. Nick was so inspired by Bella's winning speech that he passed it on to me to read. Powerful, persuasive and beautifully written, here is her speech reprinted in full.

Over to you Bella.

Shakespeare: what's all the fuss about? by Bella aged 13

'As fit as ten groats is for the hand of an Attorney, as your French crown for your tafferty punk, as Tib's rush for Tom's forefinger, nay as the pudding to the skin'

Now I'm guessing that some of you, like me when I first read that passage have no idea what that means. Most of you, however, probably guessed that it was written by William Shakespeare.

So why, when many of us don't understand Shakespeare, should we have to study him at school? Why have there been countless modern stage and film adaptations of his plays? Why are there three national theatre companies in Britain dedicated to his work? Why, nearly 400 years after his death, is he still so popular? What is all the fuss about?

Well, perhaps one of the most striking reasons is that the themes of his plays are timeless. It's well known that Shakespeare provides a very interesting historical insight into Elizabethan times and allows actors to become immersed in the culture of the time. However, Shakespeare can still be extremely relevant today. Just because times have changed, basic human nature hasn't. It's the one thing that has remained the same throughout history.

It may seem like the circumstances Shakespeare wrote about in his plays are very different from circumstances nowadays but many of the situations are actually very relatable for people today. War, ambition, greed, and political conspiracy are all themes relevant to our society.

Shakespeare's stories are just as relevant today
Take Julius Caesar for example – it is not just a play about a Roman Emperor; it could be a story straight out of a modern newspaper about the assassination of a powerful dictator. And there are many modern adaptations of Shakespeare's plays, another reason why Shakespeare is still so popular. I'm sure anyone who has seen 10 Things I Hate About You, She's The Man or West Side Story will agree with me.

And Shakespeare has a story for everyone. Enjoy the magic of Harry Potter? Shakespeare has A Midsummer Night's Dream. Want to read about war and revolution in The Hunger Games? Try Henry IV or Henry the VI. And if you're looking for a tragic love story like Noughts and Crosses, what about the most famous love story of all time? Romeo and Juliet.

In this sense, Shakespeare was writing years ahead of his time. He was using concepts in his plays, which would not be properly explored for hundreds of years. For example, in Hamlet, Shakespeare explores a psychologically challenged character long before psychology was actually developed as a science.

Boring? Think again
Now, you might think that Shakespeare's characters are boring. If so, I urge you to think again. Shakespeare has some of the most interesting characters ever invented.

What's not truly evil about a man who is so desperate for the throne that he will murder his own nephews to get it? And what's more tragic than a man who discovers that his own daughters are plotting against him and ends up losing his kingdom and his mind? And what's not funny about an extremely pompous man who gets turned into an ass?

And it isn't only the leading characters in Shakespeare that are fascinating and complex, many of the supporting characters are too - for example, Romeo's friend Mercutio is one of Shakespeare's most memorable characters, even though he dies halfway through the play.

Shakespeare's language
But perhaps one of the most extraordinary and appealing things about Shakespeare is his use of language. Although we mere mortals may not understand all of it, the words he uses and the way he knits them all together are enough to inspire the green-eyed monster in any modern-day writer.

In a few words or a phrase, Shakespeare is able to get across thoughts and feelings which other writers may take paragraphs to convey. From an actor's point of view, Shakespeare uses poetic and rhetorical devices that enable an actor to easily and effectively express feelings even if they have never felt those feelings themselves. He enables an actor to truly think and feel in their character. So, young boys can play mature women and young girls can play kings.

Finally, Shakespeare has some of the best insults in the English language. Nowadays, we tend to use a small selection of uninteresting insults. Wouldn't it make life so much more fun if we could refer to each other as 'pribbling onion-eyed moldwarps' or 'frothy fat-kidneyed hugger-muggers' or even 'beslubbering, beetle-headed, foot-lickers'? All of these belong to Shakespeare.

Beautiful poetry and exciting language, fantastic characters and timeless plots. Well that's what all the fuss is about. I hope in this short period of time that I've managed to convince you that Shakespeare is a lot more than much ado about nothing!

Thank you Bella - In the light of the recent changes to the English curriculum and comments made in the media by Julian Fellowes and Nicholas Hytner, your words are especially timely.

• Bella is a thirteen year old school girl who lives with her family (mum, dad, sister Luisa, and two cats) in Oxford. Her favourite subjects at school are English, drama and classics; she is a keen musician and in her spare time enjoys skateboarding and climbing.

• You can also read what our artistic director, Gregory Doran, thinks about what makes Shakespeare special - he spoke about it in The Telegraph and The Times recently (nb this link is behind a paywall). 

• We'd like to hear from you about your experiences of Shakespeare in school especially if you're currently studying Shakespeare – or about to start. Join the debate by leaving your comments below.

Photo of Bella by Luisa

by Jacqui O'Hanlon  |  1 comment


Nov 25, 2:35pm
sheila whiteley

I may, of course, be biased, but I thought Bella’s insights into Shakespeare’s plays both thought-provoking and well-supported by reference to relevant examples. I especially enjoyed the humour and would be interested to read how others respond to whether Shakespeare is still worthy of study, even for those without an interest in history, culture and English lit. I particularly love the musical settings of his timeless songs. Out with your guitar, Bella, and great stuff!

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Teaching Shakespeare