Shakespeare and All Those ‘Big’ Questions: Introducing the Shakespeare and . . . project

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Speaking after the bombings that took place at the Boston marathon, President Obama stated his determination to ‘get to the bottom’ of the atrocity and promised that those found to be responsible would ‘feel the full weight of justice’. The word ‘justice’ resounded each time I heard the sound bite in the days that followed; especially as I’d been teaching Macbeth, Measure for Measure and The Merchant of Venice: three of Shakespeare’s plays (amongst others in the canon), which raise pressing questions about ‘justice’ and ‘mercy’, and explore the intricate workings of the law, as well as the outworkings of lawlessness. Indeed, shortly after the US President’s speech in response to the Boston bombings, I was reading an essay submitted as part of the assessment for a course I teach on Shakespeare: Text and Performance, in which the student set out to explore exactly what justice means for Shakespeare’s characters Macbeth and Shylock at the end of their respective plays, and for those whose lives have been affected by the actions of these dramatic figures.

MacbethThis was a thought-provoking endeavour and the student developed a compelling discussion about who really got justice and who got mercy at the end of these plays, and dared to ask if justice might have been better served had Macduff not killed Macbeth but kept him alive so that he would have to live with what he’d done; and whether it would actually have been more merciful not to spare Shylock’s life as what Portia’s handling of the law ultimately achieves is the removal of all that sustains him materially and spiritually. The essay resonated with the excitement of discovering the challenges inherent in making the momentous decisions required in cases such as Shakespeare presents us with in these plays: Macbeth a regicide and tyrant, whose killings do not stop at the elimination of the monarch; and Shylock, a would-be murderer whose insistence on strictly adhering to ‘the bond’ make it clear that extracting a pound of Antonio’s ‘fair flesh’ without a surgeon present ‘to stop his wounds’ would indeed result in the merchant bleeding to death.

Shylock Hoffman 2My student’s response to Macbeth and The Merchant of Venice is exemplary of the potential of Shakespeare’s plays to generate questions of great scope and urgency, and reflects my own excitement about how encounters with Shakespeare’s plays – whether on page or stage – can urge continual (re)consideration of so many important concepts that have to be grappled with, both in the worlds of the plays and in the material reality of the space-times through which the plays travel.

The potential for Shakespeare’s plays to generate dialogue about the things that matter is one of the reasons behind the project I’m currently working on in Stratford-upon-Avon. The ‘Shakespeare and . . .’ project aims to draw together a range of different voices talking about a selection of topics which are among the ‘big’ issues that recur in Shakespeare’s plays. The words and phrases that I currently have in mind to complete the ‘. . .’ part of the project title have arisen out of my recent experience of re-reading, seeing, and teaching particular plays and include: Shakespeare and Love, Shakespeare and War, Shakespeare and Spirituality, Shakespeare and Good(ness) and Evil, Shakespeare and Identity, and Shakespeare and the Law. These apparently ‘simple’ everyday words are enduringly complex. They are all issues that make constant demands on our attention, whether because they are of particular significance at a very personal level, or on a local, national, or global scale: they are ‘in the news’ in our own lives and in the official channels of reporting the world (as the anecdote recounted above demonstrates); and are a focus of reflection for anyone involved in working on or seeing the plays.

‘Shakespeare and . . .’ fits well with the Birthplace Trust’s ‘bloggingshakespeare’ as the very raison d’être of my project is to ‘embrace’ and generate ‘Shakespearean conversation’. I’d like to invite readers of ‘bloggingshakespeare’ to join the dialogue about the ‘Shakespeare and . . .’ topics that I’ll be exploring in my blogs. But the ‘. . .’ part of the title leaves room for many more issues and I hope too that readers will respond by posting pieces that talk about the ‘Shakespeare and . . .’ topics that are important for them.

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Author:Laura Higgins

Laura Higgins is a Post-Doctoral Research Assistant in the Department of Drama and Theatre at Royal Holloway University of London, and Visiting Lecturer in Shakespeare: Text and Performance at Arcadia University, London Centre. She is currently based in Stratford-upon-Avon working on a cultural engagement project, ‘Shakespeare and . . .’, which is a partnership between Royal Holloway and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council).

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