Friday, 22 June 2012

shakespeare: guardian of English multiculturalism

Two recent programmes showed how Shakespeare’s plays bind people of all traditions who live in England together, with his insights into the human heart.

Promoting Simon Schama’s Shakespeare, the historian wrote about being a judge on Off by Heart Shakespeare:

[Children] who learned long speeches by Shakespeare…weren’t all white…they were exactly the face of young Britain that you’d expect and had absolutely no problem with the language or the meaning of the plays.
falstaffIn the documentary, Schama presented Shakespeare as writing for both “gents and groundlings”; both cold power-mongers and the “warm, earthy, beer-drinking England” represented by Elizabeth I’s favourite character, Falstaff. After Henry VIII’s reformation divorced him from Catherine of Aragon and England from Rome, Falstaff, says Schama, became “the living embodiment of a small country that suddenly has an outsize sense of itself”.

Shakespearian teacher: David HarewoodIn Macbeth, the Movie Star…and Me, Homeland actor David Harewood had five days to prepare pupils from Birmingham’s Washwood Heath Technology College to perform a scene from the Unlucky Play in Stratford-Upon-Avon. It was wonderful to see the kids become Shakespearians not only through Harewood’s tutelage but by the Bard’s living, visceral acquaintance with all of our insecurities. I cried when the actors finally transcended themselves and shone.

Schama, perhaps thinking of today, related that in the 1590s "skyrocketing" living costs sparked riots. Another connection is religious: Shakespeare wrote when "talking about religion could land you in prison, or worse".

Ours times are similar; the uneasy truce between Judaeo-Christian tradition and humanism, whose contradictions birthed modern Western culture, is threatened by sinister forces prepared to silence democracy’s atonal clamour. As the UN tells countries to "undermine national homogeneity" in the name of multiculturalism, programmes like these show that English culture gives everybody a voice. This is the only soil in which true multiculturalism can grow.

Gerry Dorrian
300 words

Click to go to Simon Schama's Shakespeare part 1: This England

Click to go to Macbeth, the Movie Star...and Me with David Harewood


  1. I thought Schama's presentation was very good indeed. Did you see James Schapiro's three-parter earlier this year? It was truly excellent, particularly on the issue of equivocation.

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