Soul of the Age

When I taught English at a Rochdale FE college, my students weren’t typical academic achievers.  Evening classes included retired women who’d left school at 13 to work in cotton mills and who, over half a century later, had discovered a love of reading.  Now they fancied trying Literature A Level.  But Shakespeare? After a week or so of bafflement at the archaic language, most of them loved it. They found their own new meanings in Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing and Othello.

Of course they did, because they’d lived through love, grief, misunderstanding, manipulation, betrayal, jealousy, family rows, depression, war - the lot. They totally ‘got’ it.  Then there were the 16-year-olds who’d ‘failed’ at school; those in their 20s and 30s who wanted to escape dead end jobs or a life on benefits by getting into university via our college access programme; young people from Pakistani and Bangladeshi backgrounds who easily related to many of the scenarios in the plays.

The most rewarding thing about exploring Shakespeare with those students, young and old, was that you weren’t just analysing a book, you were discovering and talking about life in ways that were searching, relevant, frank, and often difficult.

Imagine this - a religious but corrupt head of an autocratic state will grant a young nun’s appeal to spare the life of her brother, condemned to death (for getting his fiancé (!) pregnant) on the condition that she gives him her virginity.  This scene always generated lively debates about what Isabella should do: be pragmatic and have sex (be raped) to save her brother’s life, or maintain her pure principles and leave him to die?

The genius of Measure for Measure (for that is the play) is that it turns out to be a false choice. Hypocritical Angelo won’t stick to his word; he intends to have sex with Isabella and then Claudio will die anyway. He calculates he’s bound to get away with it. Who’d believe a naïve young girl against someone of his status and saintly reputation? Horribly relevant. 

Measure for Measure brilliantly explores the concept of justice. It weighs inflexible ‘law’ in the scales against ‘mercy’, which is informed by an understanding of what it is to be human, and by the recognition that everyone, not just the powerful, should have a voice and be heard.

It’s short-sighted to put this rich material in a box called ‘Literature’ that most young people experience only in another box – the classroom. Its power as a medium for increasing our understanding of emotional and moral identity, choices and dilemmas should be open to all.   

In funding Leading VoicesSpirit is opening the boxes. What will emerge? We don’t have any fixed idea, but we hope that the Shakespeare spark will ignite imaginative proposals.

The successful project will enable young people from different backgrounds to come together to articulate and balance their developing aspirations and diverse views of the world through creative engagement.

It was Shakespeare’s fellow author, Ben Jonson, who called him the “soul of the age”.  Time has proved that he’s a soul for all ages.  I’m looking forward to a Leading Voices adventure that reaches into contemporary communities, enhancing social cohesion, empowering young people and challenging limiting perceptions and stereotypes they hold of themselves and of others.

Not only is Shakespeare a genius (I would say that, wouldn’t I?), he was pivotal to the London 2012 cultural Olympiad World Shakespeare Festival, when all the plays were performed in many languages. The Festival also featured the My Shakespeare digital platform, inspiring fresh and diverse responses from individual artists, students and members of the public. 

At Spirit of 2012, we use events as springboards to inspire people to get involved and so boost wellbeing and community cohesion.  We’re often asked what we mean by events. Mega sporting events like last year’s Glasgow Commonwealth Games and this year’s England Rugby World Cup are obvious. On the arts side, we are supporting Hull 2017 UK City of Culture. In addition, the 400-year anniversary of the death of Shakespeare, arguably the world’s most universally admired writer, is a landmark we couldn’t ignore.