Frequently, I ask my class to step into the time machine and join me back in 1592.
Conveniently, it’s as close as we can get to dating both Richard III and Edward II, my Key Stage 5 texts. The other plays I teach at the moment – Much Ado About Nothing and Macbeth – follow on from here.
This period was a crucible in which Drama as we know it was being born, alchemically transmuted from the didactic Morality Plays into something fresh and exciting. With my Marxist critical hat on, if we can understand the contextual elements poured into that cauldron, we can better appreciate and analyse the resultant heady brew.
After safely arriving in 1592, I therefore talk about the biggest difference between then and now: no, not the smells and lack of hygiene; nor the decomposing heads on London Bridge; not even the noises of bear-baiting on the south bank …
It’s the appetite for rhetoric, the premium placed on being articulate.
Jonathan Bate states that:
Renaissance man is rhetorical man [b]
Without it, you were no-one and going nowhere fast. In 2018, just look at our leaders in the UK and US: ‘Brexit means Brexit’, anyone? Sad! God, how I miss the days when Barack Obama (and indeed Michelle) would make those beautfully constructed appeals to our hearts and minds. Modern discourse has so quickly been reduced to meaningless soundbites, as I very recently bemoaned as England approached their World Cup semi-final.
So, to me, the study of Shakespeare means expecting and welcoming rhetoric – and that’s why I enjoy monologues and soliloquy, perhaps more than witty, stichomythic banter. If you need an example, perhaps the best Shakesperean one I have come across is Mark Antony’s funeral speech in Julius Caesar. Which is why I’m seriously considering teaching it at KS4 next year – despite the masses of extra work that will involve over the summer.
Back to 1592: it wasn’t as simple as being garrulous – there seems to have been a fine line between skill and clumsy amateurism (perhaps like in the theatre itself). There’s a tension between the concepts of the ‘tedious’ and the ‘brief’ that we can see in several places:
since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief. (Hamlet II,ii)
Of course, Polonious is never brief, and often tedious. His ‘double blessing’ for Laertes is almost always played as a tedious aphoristic repetition of his first farewell, complete with comic eye-rolling and face-pulling between his children as he expounds. Perhaps he ought to have taken the advice of 2 Murderer (possibly my favourite character name):
O sir, it is better to be brief than tedious. (Richard III, I, iv)
Maybe the tension, the juxtaposition between the desire for rhetoric and the disdain for needless prolixity is best expressed by Theseus:
A tedious brief scene of young Pyramus
And his love Thisbe; very tragical mirth.’
Merry and tragical! tedious and brief!
That is, hot ice and wondrous strange snow.
How shall we find the concord of this discord?
(A Midsummer Night’s Dream, V, i)
Ultimately, we need to bear this appetite for articulation in mind when we approach Shakespeare. Here, for my Quote of the Week, is Stephen Greenblatt on the subject:
‘He heard things in the sounds of words that others did not hear; he made connections that others did not make; and he was flooded with a pleasure all his own.
This was a love and a pleasure that Elizabethan England could arouse, richly satisfy, and reward, for the culture prized ornate eloquence, cultivated a taste for lavish prose from preachers and politicians, and expected even people of modest accomplishments and sober sensibilities to write poems. In one of his early plays, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Shakespeare created a ridiculous schoolteacher, Holofernes [… who] cannot refer to an apple without adding that it hangs “like a jewel in the ear of caelo, the sky, the welkin, the heaven” and that it drops “on the face of terra, the soil, the land, the earth”. He is the comical embodiment of a curriculum that used, as one of its key textbooks, Erasmus’s On Copiusness, a book that taught students 150 different ways of saying (in Latin, of course) “Thank you for your letter.” If Shakespeare deftly mocked this manic word game, he also exuberantly played it in his own voice and his own language”
[a] Back to the Future (dir. Robert Zemeckis), (Universal Pictures, 1985)
[b] Jonathan Bate, ‘Introduction’, in William Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus (ed. Jonathan Bate, Arden third edition), (Bloomsbury Publishing: London, 2003)
[c] unlesss otherwise stated, all Shakespeare quotations taken from www.opensourceshakespeare.org
[d] Stephen Greenblatt, Will in the World, (Jonathan Cape: London, 2004)