Ideas

What is it about the plays of William Shakespeare that still moves us today?

When we think of the Elizabethan era — the late 1500s to early 1600s — it may be tempting to think only of Shakespeare. But he was only one of many writers, and there was a whole other world of literature and ideas, and of artists thinking and writing about the world as they knew it. This episode features a discussion from the Ideas Forum at the Stratford Festival, featuring actors and writers and directors with fresh perspectives into Shakespeare's life and times.
Circa 1610, English poet and dramatist William Shakespeare (1564 - 1616) at work in his study. Original Artist: By A H Payne (Edward Gooch/Getty Images)

At the opening night performance of The Tempest in May 2018, someone phoned in a bomb threat to the Stratford Festival. The performance was cancelled, and the audience went home disappointed. But in a nearby park, a group of students sitting around in the twilight were reading the play together on their cellphones. They were not to be robbed of their night with Shakespeare.

What is it about the plays of William Shakespeare that moves us still? A man who lived 400 years ago, in another country, who spoke a language more or less like ours, but still tough for many to understand — a man in many ways not at all like us. But he somehow still speaks to us in the 21st century, even with our cellphones and cars and air travel — as if he knows us better than we know ourselves. And what's more: he has wisdom and compassion. He issues us warnings, he offers us advice and comfort, he makes us laugh and cry. It's as if he's been here before us, and he's offering us a map of our alien world, a map of our own lives.

So what's his secret? Well, of course we'll never know, no matter how many shelves of books are written on the subject. But one thing is for sure: Shakespeare was a great observer. He read everything and borrowed anything, absorbed the land and the people around him, and looked beyond the England that he never left to lands and people far away in time and place. And he got the important things right (except that there's no seacoast in Bohemia). He got it right because he knew that people are all basically alike, across time and place, and he knew how to look deeply within the human heart.

He was also in the right place at the right time: the time around 1600 was the birth of what we now think of as the modern world. People then were starting to think more like the way we do now, with bigger ideas about personal identity and bigger questions about the nature of society and the world. The only serious difference between William Shakespeare and those students in the Stratford park is that they were reading by the light of a cellphone, while he was reading by the light of the moon.

This episode features a discussion from the Ideas Forum at the Stratford Festival, featuring actors and writers and directors with fresh perspectives into Shakespeare's life and times. It was moderated by theatre critic Robert Cushman.

Guests in this episode: 

  • Randall Martin, professor of English at the University of New Brunswick, and the author of a book connecting Shakespeare to Charles Darwin: Shakespeare and Ecology, (Oxford University Press, 2015).
  • Jeanette Lambermont-Morey, theatre director and veteran of the Stratford Festival. She's also Executive Director of the Shakespeare Globe Centre of Canada.
  • Antoni Cimolino, Artistic Director of the Stratford Festival.
  • Robert Cushman, former theatre critic for The Observer (UK) and The National Post.

Further reading:

**This episode was produced by Philip Coulter. Special thanks to David Campbell, Ann Swerdfager and Antoni Cimolino at the Stratford Festival.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversationCreate account

Already have an account?

now