Ellen Schaffert, Research Intern, explores the benefits of exploring Shakespeare’s plays using the same techniques that our actors and directors use in rehearsals.

David Garrick

'Tis he! 'tis he!—that demi-god!

Who Avon's flow'ry margin trod,

While sportive Fancy round him flew,

Where Nature led him by the hand,

Instructed him in all she knew,

And gave him absolute command!

'Tis he! 'tis he!

"The god of our idolatry!"

In 1769, at the first Shakespeare Jubilee, the actor and theatre-maker David Garrick spoke this adoring ode to the bard.

Through hundreds of years of reverence, Shakespeare has been elevated above his original status as a respected playwright, gaining a mythical status as the pinnacle of culture, art and expression. This attitude persists, if with more questioning and scepticism, to this day. “Shakespearean” is still used as an adjective for an excellent or grand piece of writing, and he is the only compulsory writer studied on the school English curriculum. 

Romeo and Juliet featured in this year’s coronation of the new king, acting as one exemplar of Britishness. The Shakespeare industry itself is huge, with Shakespeare being one of the UK’s most successful ever cultural exports.

There continues to be many debates on how or why Shakespeare achieved such a cultural status. After all, there are plenty of dead white dramatists to exalt - why him? Could the same have happened to Marlowe or Webster in a different world?

Is there truth to the influential literary critic Harold Bloom’s view that Shakespeare invented the human experience as we know it? Or is he a predominantly cultural creation, a patron of British imperialism?

I don’t think we will ever have a concrete answer - the fact these plays continue to be performed, attended and reinvented speaks to the potential people see in Shakespeare’s stories and words, but the cultural influences that shape the Shakespearean myth can never be entirely dismissed.

A two-way mirror

Though the question of why is perhaps unanswerable, being involved in the RSC’s rehearsal-room pedagogy has made me revisit it from a new angle. It can be easy, when you spend a lot of time with Shakespeare’s plays, to fall into a cynicism that perhaps the cultural weight of Shakespeare is more influential than the texts themselves.

In a workshop that involved learning how to deliver RSC pedagogy to children, I found myself exploring Henry VIII - a play that I, and most of the teachers in the room, knew very little about other than the history of its titular character. We explored the play and its characters through drama games and activities.

teachers in a workshop, standing
A teachers' workshop on RSC pedagogy
Photo by Sam Allard © RSC Browse and license our images

Knowing next to nothing about the play allowed me to revisit the feeling of encountering Shakespeare’s words for the first time, as most of the children participating in RSC pedagogy will be. With fresh eyes, I remembered how compelling the openness of Shakespeare’s plays is. How does this make me feel? What are this character’s motivations? Why does this character do that? In the rehearsal room, almost everybody has a different answer to any one of these questions. The plays offer you clues and careful words, but just enough open-endedness that there are nearly endless interpretations to be had, and a huge number of ways different individuals can see themselves in the language. The room was buzzing with discussion.

Often in an English classroom, the question is of Shakespeare’s intentions. Working with the text in a rehearsal room environment allows for individuals to engage with the text in ways that speak more to their personal experience: you can feel the rhythm of the iambic pentameter, you can perform and collaborate with your peers, you can bring your own physicality to the play. Maybe in connecting with the play and the depth of its language, we, and subsequently the children participating in this pedagogy, can find the words and space to explore our thinking and develop ourselves in new ways.

Though we may never be able to fully answer the question of why, I think the research that the Time To Act project is doing will help us to understand the what and the how of connecting with Shakespeare. How gazing into the two-way mirror of the language and stories can develop children’s thinking and sense of self, and what exactly it is that they find themselves exploring. Could the same work be done with the plays of Marlowe or Webster? Perhaps that is for another project to explore. Maybe the truly important thing is allowing people of all ages the time and space to connect with art in a way that can mean something to them.

Ellen Schaffert wearing a black hoodie and looking at the camera 

Ellen Schaffert

Ellen is a PhD researcher at the University of Nottingham currently working with the research team on the RSC’s Time To Act project. Their PhD project involves exploring the place of disability within the contemporary Shakespeare industry. In their spare time they like to make art and watch birds.

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