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I picked up Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar recently and, from Act One scene one, it felt like coming home. Here’s the why:

O you hard hearts, you cruel men of Rome,

Knew you not Pompey? Many a time and oft

Have you climb’d up to walls and battlements,

To towers and windows, yea, to chimney-tops,

Your infants in your arms, and there have sat

The livelong day, with patient expectation,

To see great Pompey pass the streets of Rome:

And when you saw his chariot but appear,

Have you not made an universal shout,

That Tiber trembled underneath her banks,

To hear the replication of your sounds

Made in her concave shores?

And do you now put on your best attire?

And do you now cull out a holiday?

And do you now strew flowers in his way

That comes in triumph over Pompey’s blood? Be gone!

Ingratitude indeed. Here the ‘commoners’ are called on their fickleness in swaying from one leader to the next as Caesar now triumphs where Pompey had before. The togas have transformed but have we changed so much?

Some would argue that Lovelock’s Dream Run remains a contemporary example of New Zealand’s complex concerning leaders (or merely celebrities) to fill a communal void in want of heroes. Some would also argue that an athlete’s only as good as their last performance. Just an athlete? How soon the spotlight fades on the latest in-thing.

As current today as when quilled to reference Rome herself, Shakespeare captures people at their finest and foulest: people being fickle; people being people.

Today a crowd gathering is like to have a smattering of different titles raised if you ask all and sundry for their ‘favourite Shakespeare’. Favourite play, favourite scene, favourite sonnet? But why is Shakespeare still given so much weight?

Visit any second hand bookstore and you can almost guarantee you’ll find more copies of Shakespeare’s plays than that of any other playwright, George Bernard Shaw inclusive (though that wouldn’t please him). Say what you will of the curriculum or syllabus, of classics or contemporary reading lists. I’ve lived with non-English speakers. The French may’ve had Molier and the Spanish Lope de Vega, but it was  Shakespeare my friends were versed in before they could speak ‘Modern English’.

So what of Shakespeare? He created words. Granted. We know as much from Dr Who. But so what if he was a wordsmith? Words concerning people are nothing without observing people, understanding people, knowing people as well as you know yourself – well enough to put them onstage to be recognised, empathized or generally engaged with.

Shakespeare cast and coined expressions, created characters and told tales of timeless interest. But as to wherefore they are timeless… could it be that if performed well, or read to understanding, an experience of Shakespeare can still equate to a smack in the face with transcending recognition that says ‘that’s my father’ or better still ‘that’s me!’

Shakespeare’s sonnets and speeches surge with an understanding of what it is to suffer love like a sickness. His characters experience envy, enmity, ambition, adoration, pride, pain, piety, charismatic conviction, melancholy and malice, greed and generosity, despair and devotion, hope, revenge, fear and fickleness, betrothals, betrayals and general brokenness. Is there a feeling felt not found in Shakespeare?

Even if, for whatever reason, one failed to engage with a single Shakespearean character, it needs be admitted at the very least that the man knew how to tell a story. Many of you will have seen Measure for Measure at Bats of late. It’s unlikely to be one of Shakespeare’s most performed plays and less likely to become so since its general premise requires high stakes in the chastity department. Not something we’d necessarily value above human life today.

Nevertheless, situations writers strive for when contemplating play structure is often a three handed two handed dilemma. That is, in Measure for Measure, our nun Isabella could choose A – lose her virginity but save her brother’s life, or, on the other hand, choose B – see her brother executed but save her virginity and (possibly) her soul. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t? But lo! Unsuspectingly out of the ether comes a third option. A trick, an invention, something not thought possible before. Just when your audience were at the edge of their seats (if they weren’t already sitting on the stage or standing is a Shakespearean mosh), just as nurses cried ‘alas, which option will she choose from the one hand or the other’, the third hand appears and story telling is at its finest. Someone else can shag ‘im and everyone wins.

Shakespeare equals timeless. Your thoughts as to why are welcome. For myself, Ozymandias may’ve sought immortality but to my mind Shakespeare has it, at least in the written words we’re blessed with.

To conclude, I leave you with Shakespeare’s sonnet 55 – one of my favourite sonnets and possibly one of the more apt in describing its own longevity.

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
But you shall shine more bright in these contènts
Than unswept stone, besmeared with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
And broils root out the work of masonry,
Nor Mars his sword nor war’s quick fire shall burn
The living record of your memory.
‘Gainst death and all-oblivious enmity
Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
So, till the judgment that yourself arise,
You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes.

  • I haven’t done enough Mike Alfreds exercises to play a meat puppet
  • At least we’ve all got a copy of the play
  • If George Lucas were here he’d have no reason to make comparisons
  • If only this show could go as well as Measure for Measure
  • *Name of Actor* isn’t here? Let’s take 5 minutes to admire his best attributes
  • If only there were more Welshman in the comic subplot
  • Horse-shaggers can’t become monarchs
  • David has nothing to say. We’ll get straight into rehearsing.
  • The budget’s huge. We’ll have money left over
  • Cup o’ tea and a lie down?
  • If only there were a kind of shoe the whole cast could wear
  • Surprise me *insert waving ghost fingers*
  • Of course my lines are down, this is my only commitment
  • I’m getting too much sleep
  • If Starry Starry were here…
  • I wish I could have my coffee in a jar
  • Which scenes are we doing?! Whichever we want. Every actor’s at every rehearsal
  • If only we were a club
  • I should get rid of my books. I’ve already read them.
  • The English child king is a twenty something who was the traitor father to the actor formerly playing the previous king. His Uncles are women. The Dolphin of France was the English pirate. What’s not to understand?

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