Education Programmes Officer, Jessica Holifield, reflects on the relevance of Shakespeare today, as we celebrate 400 years since the First Folio
In 1623, playwright Ben Jonson wrote of his contemporary William Shakespeare, ‘he was not of an age, but for all time!’ in one of his poems.
Four hundred years later we celebrate the anniversary of the publication of Shakespeare’s first folio, seven years after his death. What is it about Shakespeare that means Shakespeare’s Globe attracts over 1.25 million visitors a year, or that the number of film adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays would make him a world-record breaker, or indeed, that Shakespeare’s literature now takes pride of place on the English literature curriculum across the UK? What is it about Shakespeare, that 400 years on we are still marvelling and puzzling at his literature?
Perhaps it’s because Shakespeare’s works explore, question, and embrace the human condition. His 37 plays expose the vulnerability of the human experience, inviting the audience to join in and to laugh and cry with the characters. Shakespeare encourages us to think about ourselves and our place in the world by enabling us to consider religion, race, gender and sexuality and class, all through the lens of inventive – and frankly, entertaining – theatre. We can argue, then, that using the medium of art, his plays allow us to develop empathy for people who have experiences different to our own, which is invaluable today.
Even if we are not literary or theatre fanatics, we cannot help but refer to Shakespeare in our everyday conversations. Shakespeare’s plays were the first recorded instances of more than 1, 700 words in the English language, meaning he has shaped the way we talk and interact with each other far beyond the stage. Tongue-tied, obscene and sanctimonious (to name but a few) are all words that were first recorded by Shakespeare, and are believed to have been invented by him, too.
The ESU celebrates the Bard with our Performing Shakespeare competition. We encourage students to have their own take on Shakespeare, making the plays relevant to themselves and to today by creating a unique spin on a scene of their choice. Students are asked to explain what their scene means to them and the creative choices they have made, and we consistently receive mature and insightful analyses, demonstrating how transformative yet relevant Shakespeare can be for the younger generations.
We believe our Performing Shakespeare competition humanises these 400-year-old texts and provides an alternative angle to the English curriculum by giving students a space to perform the plays – as was the original intention (rather than them being simply literary texts to read and study). Our competition takes students away from textbooks and exams, and encourages them to immerse themselves in Shakespearean theatre against the backdrop of developing their confidence, public speaking and performance abilities.
Excitingly, this year’s grand final will take place at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe, a perfect venue to pay tribute to Early Modern theatre and create the right atmosphere for students to channel into their performances. What better way to celebrate 400 years since the publication of the First Folio?
If you want to continue sharing the joy of Shakespeare with the younger generations, you can sign up to enter our Performing Shakespeare competition when we relaunch in June and remain updated by subscribing to our Secondary Schools’ Newsletter.