400 years of William Shakespeare... All that lives must die

It is 400 years since the death of the Bard. MARTINA BORG explores Shakespeare’s enduring legacy with the people who keep it alive

Martina Borg
26 April 2016, 7:55am
Even Disney appropriated his work, from Gaston's nod to Lady Macbeth when he yells 'Screw your courage to the sticking place'... Shakespeare's legacy remains at once strong and disputed, 400 years after his death
Even Disney appropriated his work, from Gaston's nod to Lady Macbeth when he yells 'Screw your courage to the sticking place'... Shakespeare's legacy remains at once strong and disputed, 400 years after his death
Concerns with mortality were central to many of William Shakespeare’s works, but although the world marked on April 23 the 400th anniversary since his death, his name and works are still in fine fettle today. 

Indeed, references to the Bard’s work still permeate anything, from political discourse (“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” seems a local favourite of late) to popular culture, but young students  and their parents tend to get their doublets in a twist every time somebody even ventures a mention of his work, with some schools even striking the playwright clean off their syllabus. 

University of Malta lecturer Dr Clare Vassallo told MaltaToday that students tend to be put off by Shakespeare because of the way his works are approached. 

 “Many students get bogged down by the language, which, however beautiful, is difficult for them to relate to, given the distance in time,” Vassallo said. 

“Beyond the language, however, lie themes that are universally relatable, and truly entertaining stories,” she added, pointing out that his works should be presented as they were meant; in performance.

Vassallo explained that showing students the play first and then finally moving on to a textual analysis, would perhaps spike students’ interest in the plays to a greater extent. 

University lecturer Dr. Clare Vassalo
University lecturer Dr. Clare Vassalo
“In truth the plays are much more current than we imagine, and students can begin to understand that if they are aware of the many different movie adaptations of the works, starring some of the most celebrated movie stars of their time,” she added. 

These views are in fact echoed by San Andrea secondary school English teacher Lara Muscat, who insists that the visual aspect is essential to students, particularly in today’s media-dominated world.  

Muscat also suggests that students should be urged to act out parts of the play, perhaps even wearing costumes on occasion, or re-writing scenes using modern day dialogue. 

St Aloysius Sixth Form teacher Andre Delicata told the newsroom that encouraging students to act out scenes and take part, is the key to bringing Shakespeare’s relevance to the fore. 

“The plots can sometimes read like soap operas so if they are presented in as entertaining a manner, then students will be as engaged,” he said, adding that he sometimes encouraged translations into vernacular Maltese to fully explain the humour of a particular scene. 

“Unfortunately however, time is against students, because at the end of the day they need to prepare themselves well for their final examinations,” Muscat pointed out, suggesting that perhaps it was the whole examination system itself that ought to be revised. 

“Introducing coursework and assignments rather than basing everything on one final two-hour examination would make for a much more holistic approach to teaching and learning,” she said. 

Vassallo, also highlighted this fact in her comments, saying that Maltese students and the whole educational system was unfortunately “enslaved to the syllabus”, a situation that risked creating a cultural deficit (a Blackadder: Back & Forth scenario of cultural cluelessness springs to mind).

“Not knowing or understanding Shakespeare’s works would essentially mean missing multitudinous references in our everyday lives,” she said, adding that the works were also something of a link to the past. She likened this to the many references to Greek and Latin mythology made in Classic works.

“When we stopped teaching Greek and Latin, many of the references made in Classic works of literature started going right over our heads,” she said.

“Students would still be able to pass their exams if Shakespeare were eliminated from their education, but they wouldn’t be able to communicate with people in the broader context, because they would have a lack of general knowledge.”

Highlighting the importance of his works in the English Canon, Muscat likens learning English without studying Shakespeare to having a library without any books. 

“His works are part and parcel of English literature,” she said, adding that the works can also give a sound background into English history, something that is essential to the understanding of a culture and language. 

She also rightly points out that the Bard also retains his relevance nowadays for storylines that deal with themes that can be adapted to modern day issues and human qualities common to all in both time and space.

Chronicling the history of humanity

Delicata adds that Shakespeare was not just a chronicler of the human condition, but that his work is also important from a linguistic perspective, as his work is a record of language development.

“As obscure as the language seems now, that is exactly how people used to speak at the time,” he said, highlighting that performances were geared at appealing to the general public rather than academics. 

He also stressed that many expressions in Shakespeare’s work had made their way into everyday language, highlighting the importance of keeping in touch with these roots.

“Even if people stop studying Shakespeare at schools around the world, some form of the wealth he gave the English language will percolate into society, so it will always be important to know where they come from exactly,” Delicata added.

Referring to schools that opt for removing Shakespeare from their syllabus, Delicata stressed that the move gives a harmful message that students can’t handle the material, and that it is ultimately a disservice to their education.

“If Shakespeare could be handled by a person with no formal education in the 16th century, he can be handled by 13-year-old students if it is properly taught,” he reasons.

Actor and director Philip Leone Ganado is also in line with this thinking, telling MaltaToday that some people are put off Shakespeare either because of the way his work is presented, or because it’s treated with such reverence that the suggestion is that it’s only for really clever people.

Actor and director Philip Leone Ganado in MADC's production Romeo and Juliet last summer
Actor and director Philip Leone Ganado in MADC's production Romeo and Juliet last summer
“Tell a child that if you don’t understand each and every word then you’re too stupid for Shakespeare and they’ll believe it for ever,” he argues. 

Shakespeare’s creative genius

Vassallo also points out that Shakespeare essentially teaches us a lot about what a successful creative process truly looks like.

“Shakespeare didn’t invent most of his stories and characters, he took many tales from history or from older stories (Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Henry V to mention a few examples) and rewrote them in his style and language as well as adding some new characters,” she said, adding that this was in fact a process that still occurs in popular culture nowadays. 

The point was also highlighted by Delicata who added that the stories, which sometimes read like soap operas, are elevated by the language used, which essentially teaches readers and viewers that anything can be turned into art if it is treated properly.

Referring to the many purists who would rather see Shakespeare completely unadulterated and never being adapted again, Vassallo stresses that although we tend to imagine there is a wide chasm between high and popular culture, adaptations of his work followed his own example. 

“I can’t help but imagine how he would feel seeing the way his work has been seamlessly appropriated even in children’s cartoons for instance.  The much-loved Disney cartoons for instance, contain a plethora of references, starting from Gaston’s nod to Macbeth when he yells ‘Screw your courage to the sticking place’ in Beauty and the Beast, to the Genie’s reference to Julius Caesar with ‘Et tu Brute?’ in Aladdin, not to mention Hamlet being the inspiration behind The Lion King.

“Shakespeare was no purist to begin with. He never even bothered publishing his original work, so what we have now are notes and scripts that include amendments made during rehearsals of the plays,” she said, adding that these notes could also include contributions from others, including fellow actors.

The playwright and his actors

Not by coincidence perhaps, some of the most vehement admirers of Shakespeare’s body of work, are actors themselves. The MADC’s artistic director, Marylu Coppini said she always felt an overwhelming sense of privilege and responsibility when playing one of his roles.

“These are characters that have withstood the test of time, and they have been played by some of the most talented and well-known actors in history,” she said, adding that like students, actors and directors were very concerned with the hurdle presented by Shakespearean language. 

“Like all literary works, the plays are essentially, ‘just’ words beautifully put together, and so the challenge is to find a way to ‘frame’ the piece in a way that succeeds in drawing and holding the attention of a twenty-first century audience,” she explains. 

However, despite the challenge this creates, the MADC still puts up an annual Shakespeare play at San Anton Gardens, choosing one of the best known comedies, believed to be entirely his creation, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, for this pivotal year. Coppini says that the tradition remains one of the most anticipated events for local theatre-lovers.

MADC creative director Marylu Coppini
MADC creative director Marylu Coppini
 “It has come to form part of the identity of the MADC and is felt to be the most appropriate closure to our annual theatrical season,” she said, adding that many also had a sense of nostalgic fondness for the plays, given that many people have studied the works at some point in their lives. 

“I think that as long as Shakespeare plays are produced in a way that attempts to bring more relevance to a modern-day audience, with good language speakers and good use of ambiance, costumes, lighting and music, they will not fail to interest local audiences.”

Someone who seems to have grasped a way to breathe new life into Shakespeare’s plays, is fellow thespian Leone Ganado. Fresh from directing The Two Gentlemen of Verona, he explained that the decision to put up the play in a pub sought to bring a sense of immersion that was commonplace in the original performances.

“When you’re watching Shakespeare in a big theatre, with actors in old-fashioned costumes yelling at the top of their lungs – it can be done very well and very beautifully – but that sort of confirms everything people think (wrongly) Shakespeare is,” he said.

He explained that by bringing Shakespeare into a casual setting that people are already familiar with, he had tried to bring the edge off somewhat. 

“This is a play, ultimately, not a holy text. It can be fun, silly and engaging, and The Pub gave us the licence to play with those aspects more than most people are used to,” he said, stressing that acting and directing Shakespeare always gave him a sense of privilege nonetheless. 

Asked how Shakespeare performances could be made more current, Leone Ganado said that unconventional venues could go a long way, but that the aim of staging should always be engaging audiences rather than showing off the cleverness of the director or actors involved.

“Shakespeare was an incredible storyteller; I guess our job as performers is just to tell his story in the best possible way,” he said, also pointing out that understanding every single word of the text was essential to passing on the message.

“Relaying the language conversationally, as if they were speaking actual human words, not some sort of grandiose poetry, will help audiences understand them too.”

Still not convinced Shakespeare’s relevant nowadays? Here are a few expressions you might not even know were coined by the Bard…

Othello

‘Jealousy is the green eyed monster’

‘Wear my heart upon my sleeve’

The Merchant of Venice

‘Bated breath’

‘Love is blind’

‘All that glitters is not gold’

The Taming of the Shrew

‘Break the ice’ 

Macbeth

‘One fell swoop’

‘Be all and end all’ 

Hamlet

‘Cruel to be kind’

Julius Caesar

‘Let slip the dogs of war’

‘Lend me your ears’

The Merry Wives of Windsor

‘As good luck would have it’ 

King John

‘Fight fire with fire’

Romeo and Juliet

‘Star crossed lovers’

The Tempest

‘Vanish into thin air’

Martina Borg focuses on lifestyle and society issues