Today is National Shakespeare Day. If you knew that already, well done! If you didn’t know that you now have some very exciting trivia to share with your friends and you’re welcome. Also, if trivia is your thing, then you have come to the right blog!
William Shakespeare (the dude in that picture hanging up in drama class with the receding hair line and frilly collar) has been seen over the past 400 years as the Immortal Bard. Many people praise his work which is regularly referred to in contemporary culture for many different reasons. Performers (including the ones here at ITI) study Shakespearean work intensely, learning their knowledge and craft on the foundation of his body of work. But why? What makes this guy so good? How has one man from Stratford in England managed to make such a global and historical impact with just some plays?
We went on a little hunt to uncover why Shakespeare has left such a huge impact on the world, and how his work has remained current through hundreds of years. So let’s unpack this together and how about we start here… at the English Renaissance Theatre period?
The Renaissance theatre period stretched from 1562 right through to 1642. Those are the golden years, friends. During this time creating theatre became an economically viable profession, but also slowly moved away from being for everyone to being mostly for the elite. Shakespeare produced most his work between 1589 and 1613 – very much a Renaissance man. He began by writing comedies, then moved into tragedies and tragicomedies during the second half of his career. At the time he wasn’t that renowned – people knew and liked his work but it wasn’t until a while after his death, during the Romantic Period (1770-1850) that critics and enthusiasts alike began to proclaim him as a ‘natural genius’ and allowed his work to influence their own.
So why did so many people relate to Shakespeare’s work over 150 years after his death? The answer is in how he wrote about the human condition, something it seems our man William understood something about. His plays and sonnets over the entire course of his career bounce from genre to genre, they met tragedy and comedy, romance, they broke the fourth wall, they included choruses, stories of kings and queens, the rich and the poor. There was a vast amount of variety, and yet there are themes that resonate across each of them. Themes deeper and wider than the story itself. He introduced themes of appearance versus reality (where the way things appear is not how they are), transformation, conflict, life and death, revenge (and many more). Metaphors played out through wild stories were able to resonate with audiences across the world (even audiences who weren’t kings or queens or identical twins) because the exploration of a central theme like transformation is something each of us, even today, must undergo at various points throughout life… transformation of ourselves, our relationships and our circumstances. And no matter the catalyst for the transformation, the internal turmoil and processing usually looks the same.
He repeats this with love, with death, with conflict… and it’s this ability to peer into human consciousness and reveal deepest thoughts, fears and secrets that drew, and continues to draw, seemingly unconnected audience members to the same pieces of work every time. Together. All sharing this common ground of experience.
Shakespeare also left a legacy of language. Over his lifetime he invented over 1700 words that are still in common use today. He shaped modern language through his writing. He also appropriated nouns into verbs, used verbs as adjectives, and invented the use of prefixes and suffixes. Words in your vocabulary today like addiction, amazement, bedroom, champion, cold-blooded, discontent, jaded, negotiate, swagger, rant, lonely and radiance were all invented by The Bard himself. A huge, wide, complex range of words and ideas have developed our modern language… all through his plays.
So… how is Shakespeare relevant to ITI?
As a theatre company, Interactive Theatre International has a special connection to the power and influence of William Shakespeare. In many ways, the ITI brand finds itself very closely aligned to the Elizabethan and Shakespearean theatre experience. Sure, we haven’t invented any new words for the Oxford dictionary (though Faulty’s Manuel sure does come up with a few interesting ones) but we do have a lot of other things that are very similar. For example, interactivity was a foundation of Elizabethan plays. Performances often took place in open-roof theatres and with thrust stages so the action was happening right in the middle of the audience. Theatre goers would often talk to each other or interact with the show itself, adding their opinions and excitement to the atmosphere.
Just like those plays, ITI loves to encourage our audiences to get into the action – in The Wedding Reception and Faulty Towers The Dining Experience in particular, performers actively encourage audiences to bring their energy and sense of play along with them. Katie Cooper who performs in both shows says this: “I love it when the audience interacts in our shows because it is completely live and unplanned. It keeps us on our toes and gives us great material to work with and bounce off.”
Faulty, especially, has a very Shakespearean feel to the type of comedy played out. Shakespeare, as a man of all genres, used some of the silliest and most slapstick comedy available to make audiences laugh. He would include double takes, pratfalls, over-the-top violence, theatrical rants, costume gags, even language/accent misunderstandings! Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick! We hit the checklist on every single one of those. In our own little way, we are bringing Shakespearean comedy with us everywhere we go.
And what about our themes? As playful and fun as our two cornerstone shows are, audiences return time and time again because both shows connect with very relevant experiences every person has. The Wedding Reception touches on themes of love and conflict and nestled in there is the uncomfortable secret that we believe we’re not good enough to be loved. Faulty, on the other hand, has themes of ambition, betrayal, and order and disorder – some of Shakespeare’s most classic comedic themes. From these, comedy is born. Partly because we see fun and silly characters making fools of themselves, and partly because we see ourselves.
All this, and we haven’t even mentioned the simple fact that Shakespeare’s plays are fun, dramatic and compelling! James Heatlie, another ITI performers, has this to add: “There’s so much in our language that originated from Shakespeare that we use on a daily basis such as, ‘wild goose chase’ (Romeo & Juliet) or ‘green-eyed monster’ (Othello) that it can’t fail to be relevant. But also the themes of the plays so often have meaning for today: love, hate, political intrigue, struggles for power. It’s likely that Shakespeare’s works and words will be both popular and relevant for many centuries to come.”So, the team here at ITI will definitely be making a point to celebrate the great man today (frilly collars for everyone!) and we hope you manage to take a moment too – read a sonnet, perform a soliloquy, murder all the main characters in your life (please don’t do that last one) and honour the man who influenced language and performance as we know it.