When I was a student at university I tried whenever possible to insert a reference to Bob Dylan into my weekly essay. Not much has changed then. Here I am 40 years later with a title taken from a Bob Dylan song.
Is there a point in this? I guess what I was trying to do originally was to say that a modern writer – like Bob Dylan – could shed light on a writer from an earlier age – like William Shakespeare. But now I’m simply saying that great writing has an enduring relevance for every age – and for every age group. Shakespeare is forever young. His relevance continues and each new generation discovers something new and unexpected for itself.
It comes down to writing itself. Through Shakespeare we rethink the purpose and possibilities of writing because no writer has been as ambitious or achieved as much. He continues to make us think – about words and their meaning, and the possibilities for meaning contained in words that are put together in combinations that challenge us to think and see things in a new light.
Shakespeare’s continuing relevance today is his ability still to make us think. He makes us think by using words. So we should think what lessons Shakespeare’s use of words might have for our own use of words in the twenty-first century – 400 years after audiences in the Globe were first hearing those words.
That was the main premise for this book The Bard & Co. As you can see, the sub-title is Shakespeare’s Role in Modern Business. Some people here tonight might think it almost sacrilegious to associate Shakespeare in any way with the world of modern business and with business writing. Because this book is a collection of essays by contemporary business writers. And what do we think about the quality of writing in modern business? The generally held view is that it’s appalling. It’s full of jargon. It can be dishonest. It muddies meaning. It’s vacuous. It misuses words while choosing them from too narrow a vocabulary. This is on a good day…. It’s like linguistic junk food whereas Shakespeare’s language represents a rich and healthy diet.
That’s true, of course. But it’s not an argument for a separation of these two kinds of writing into separate ghettos. Far from it. For me it reinforces the argument that modern business writers should be looking at Shakespeare to see what they can learn to improve their own writing. And that is exactly the challenge we set with The Bard & Co. After all, Shakespeare himself was a hired hand, and he made his living from writing. I should explain how this came about. I’ve known Patrick Spottiswoode for many years since he first showed me around the hole in the ground that was then the Globe in a state of pre-construction. I was working with a design company and we were helping Patrick tell the wider world about the plans for the Globe and its vital education programme. Because the Globe has always been keen to reach out and bring Shakespeare to new generations.
It reminds me too of a story that Patrick told me about showing the Bishop of London around the building as it was filling with people. We must remember our churches as you have remembered the Globe. The reference there was to Hamlet’s father as a ghost calling out ‘Remember me’. Shakespeare, as usual, had at least two meanings in his head and it’s a good example of the ability of his words to spark a thought that is absolutely relevant to a modern but universal situation.
A year or so ago I met up again with Patrick and I was telling him about 26. 26 is a not-for-profit group of writers – mainly professional writers for business – who have set themselves the somewhat daunting task of trying to improve the quality and status of writing in the world of work. 26 is a membership organisation – we have some 250 members drawn mainly from the disciplines of marketing, branding, advertising, communication. And we also have poets such as Simon Armitage and novelists like Ali Smith involved in our work. Because for all of us writing is more than something we do for a living. We care for the way words are used and we want words to be respected and valued more than they often seem to be.
Anyway, back to the meeting with Patrick … Patrick wandered off for a while. He came back into his office with Shakespeare’s First Folio – as you do, if you’re the Globe’s Education Director – and he showed me the page that listed the ‘principall actors’. I knew I ought to count them – just to make sure – and of course there were 26 names listed. Shakespeare, Burbage, Hemmings, Kemp and many lesser-known names.
So it seemed inevitable that we should collaborate on a 26 project. The idea was that we would pair 26 of the writers from our group with one of Shakespeare’s plays and one of the original actors. And in making that connection between writer-actor-play, simply set the brief to explore what the play – and possibly the actor – might mean to the modern writer. What light does this play shed on business writing today? How relevant is Shakespeare’s language to your own writing? Do his ideas change your ideas? If so, how?
Along with Jim Davies and Rob Williams, I was the editor of the book and its 26 essays. I also wrote the Introduction for which I was assigned not one of the plays but the Sonnets to consider. It put me in the privileged position of being able to read and occasionally help along the writing – and also to stand back and draw some conclusions.
That process of drawing conclusions continued long after the book was published. As always with Shakespeare he provokes thought and he keeps coming back with new thoughts. Certainly what happened with my own writing – and with that of all the participants, I suspect – is that you feel challenged. If ever it was a temptation, the thought that “oh well, that will be good enough” was banished. As I put it in the Introduction:
“Challenge yourself. Use Shakespeare as the ultimate challenge.
In the business context, when I use the word “writer” don’t think too narrowly. I mean anyone who uses words at work. You might be the logistics expert, the marketing manager, the chief executive, the financial director, the independent chairman, the HR specialist, the commercial consultant. You all use words. Words are your opportunity to gain power. Seize them, seize it.
What Shakespeare shows us is simply this. Language is everything. Ignore it and you’re lost. You cannot operate as a business without a deep understanding of the power of words and their potential to change our attitudes, our hearts and our behaviour. You cannot get your business right until you get its words right.”
For tonight I’ve challenged myself to look into some of the specific lessons that I and the other writers have drawn from this immersion in Shakespeare. If our main gain from Shakespeare is a greater awareness of the possibilities of language, a greater respect for words, a love of their potential to change minds and organisations, then what are the writing principles that we can apply to our own everyday craft? Perhaps the next time that we write an annual report. Or a label on packaging. Or an advert on the tube. Or an investment proposal for the board. Or an email to a client. Can we use Shakespeare to make these examples of writing more engaging, more dramatic, more effective?
I believe we can. So I’m going to suggest ten principles that we all might apply to the writing we produce at work – whatever kind of work we do, because we all use words. And we can all choose to try to make them better.
My first principle is this:
Be inventive with your words
It’s perhaps the most obvious lesson we can take from Shakespeare. He invented thousands of new words. Or at least the example cited from Shakespeare often represents the first recorded use of a new word or new meanings of words. There are two chapters of The Bard & Co I’d like to draw on here to explore the principle.
First there’s Stuart Delves’ chapter, the first in the book. Stuart was paired with Shakespeare himself and with Macbeth – appropriately enough as Stuart is based in Scotland. Stuart runs his own copywriting agency and he’s also a poet, storyteller and playwright. A description that starts to show that stereotypes of the business writer as a jaded hack might not have much validity.
Stuart’s approach was bold. He decided to write his chapters as if written by Shakespeare in his diary on the evening of the first performance of Macbeth. It’s an act of almost Marlovian ambition to try to adopt the voice of Shakespeare 400 years on – or at least to plausibly enter his mind and put down words as if from Shakespeare. But Stuart has tried and, I believe, succeeded. This is no pastiche. He finds a tone that sounds credibly Jacobean without resorting to “thou”s and “hast”s and without a trace of “hie thee to Gloucester, saucy Worcester”.
For example, listen to this:
“But Macbeth’s line is scrunched in a child’s tomb on some holy skerry in a ferocious sea. The Stuart line is my concern. In the politics of the play at least. And it is too distant a history for even James to take great heed of. But my greater concern is with the globe within, where all life’s threads tangle in their fateful weave. Drayton quipped that my Macbeth is more like the son of death. But no. The fruit of life is raw potential and just as nature swings from storm to June dew, so we must make what we will of that nature which is ours.”
I think that’s a fine piece of writing. There’s a rugged rhythm in the language and an enjoyment of the sound of words that is inspired by Shakespeare but certainly no parody of Shakespeare. With its alliteration of unusual words like “scrunched” and “skerry” it suggests, without needing to say so, that we too often deny ourselves the pleasure of a wide vocabulary. The language is inventive but for a purpose. It is not about applying cosmetics it is about exploring content. We get to deeper levels of meaning through this inventiveness with words.
And, as Roger Horberry explores in another chapter, Shakespeare is famous for inventing new words, for neologisms.
“No, they cannot touch me for coining, I am the King himself.”
The quotation is from King Lear, the play that Roger was paired with. And Roger chose to delve into Shakespeare’s ability to coin new words.
Let me put up this list of words. Many of them were first recorded in use in Shakespeare. Anyone know which of these words are originally Shakespearean, which not?
In fact there’s a good case to be made that that they are all Shakespearean in first recorded usage in their present day meaning. Most of the list are words first given an outing in King Lear. Perhaps the least Shakespearean of them is ‘profit’, that quintessential word of business. Yet when Shakespeare was using this – and others from the modern business world like ‘manager’ and ‘management’ – he was certainly (in modern jargon) an early adopter.
The point is – and it’s the point that Roger Horberry makes in his chapter – that our language lives in a state of constant evolution. We could not freeze it if we tried. And why would we try?
We get great pleasure from inventing and using new words. New words are invented for a reason – to express a thought that cannot be adequately conveyed by the existing stock of words. We’ve become very sniffy about this in modern times. Roger gives the dictionary definition of that 1960s origin word “buzzword” as “a neologism gone fad”. The dictionary editor obviously does not approve but Roger makes a good case for buzzwords as adding to the richness of our language. As Roger asks, if you don’t use the word “outsourcing” how can you convey the thought without using an excess of words?
And it’s in this sheer playfulness with invented words that Shakespeare is most ‘young’. I know that over the next ten years thousands of new words will enter the language – and they will probably be introduced by people who are now in their teens and younger. Much of it will be driven by technology, as it has been by email and texting in recent times – but there are new forms of technology to come and the young will find the words for it. So I welcome this and repeat as my first principle
Be inventive with your words
Just as a coda to this, I was reading John Stubbs’ wonderful biography of John Donne. In a letter, writing about why he had been less than honest to his father-in-law about marrying his daughter, Donne wrote: “I knew that to have given any intimation of it had been to impossibilitate the whole matter.” So when we wonder why some neologisms stick and some don’t, we might consider that there are a few principles to bear in mind: how useful is the word because there is no other word that will do? And, importantly, what does it sound like? Does it just sound too ugly, like ‘impossibilitate’?
But let’s move on, because there is much more that Shakespeare has to tell us about living and writing today, and that leads neatly to the second principle. Here is my second principle
Speak and listen
This is from Lin Sagovsky’s chapter on Love’s Labour Lost :
“As babies, we put things in our mouths to find out what they are. We play with the physicality of sound in order to discover it for ourselves: to own it and inhabit it… Putting Shakespeare in your mouth takes you inside the heartbeat of powerful words.”
In her chapter Lin tells the story of working with a businessman on a Shakespearean speech – and helping him to experience the energy in those words. For her it’s a complete physical experience, which we might not all be able to share. But there is an electricity in the sound of Shakespeare’s verse that we can all respond to. We can listen to it, we can feel it when we speak it.
In writing the Introduction to The Bard & Co I was using The Sonnets as my main point of reference. For many years now I’ve been running workshops to encourage business people to write more expressively. It has always been vital, in those workshops, for people to speak and listen. To read the words they have written out loud and then to listen – and to allow us all to listen. The sound of the words always tells you a lot. That the thought is clear – or not. Interesting – or not. Confident – or not. At a basic level, speaking and listening is vital to help you edit your own writing.
Because he was generally writing for the stage, Shakespeare always heard the words he was writing. This was true for The Sonnets as well as the plays. As part of my Introduction I drew on an exercise I had conducted as an experiment during a writing course in Spain. I gave people the first twelve lines of a Shakespearean Sonnet, then asked them to write a final couplet to complete it. The idea was not to improve on Shakespeare but to get more accustomed to the potential of rhythm and rhyme to inform our everyday writing. Also to think about the way a couplet both provides a conclusion and demonstrates the poem’s themes. In other words, there are skills we need to apply in our writing for business – so let’s learn from the way Shakespeare does it.
I think we all learnt something from doing that exercise. Indeed we did it again with a new group on a second course a month or so ago. It’s very hard but very rewarding. And it’s all about speaking and listening to improve your writing.
Where do you speak and where do you listen? It’s certainly a question to ponder if you go into as many soulless corporate environments as I do. I believe a writer can write anywhere – but I also believe that the right space will help the writing process. This leads to my third principle
Find the space
Shakespeare has been sometimes criticised for being so ordinary. Tolstoy was offended that Shakespeare should depict Lear as old, decrepit, insane and still expect us to see him as a heroic figure. Attitudes to Shakespeare often seem to involve an element of snobbery – how could this ordinary man from the midlands have written such plays? But the plays, in all their details, reflect Shakespeare’s connection with everyday existence rather than an aristocratic sensibility. Stephen Greenblatt draws attention in Will in the World to the everyday detail that runs through all Shakespeare’s writing. He highlights the use of an ordinary handkerchief as the central object on which the tragedy of Othello hinges.
Going back to Stratford at the end of his life, it is the mundane details of money, land and property ownership that occupied Shakespeare rather than anything spiritual or philosophical. Shakespeare saw buildings as places to live in and, perhaps more interestingly to him, to invest in. We know little about Shakespeare’s working methods as a writer. There’s no evidence that he had a favourite writing place.
And yet… there is a magic to the space that represented his livelihood. The theatre itself is special for Shakespeare, this wooden O, this cockpit that could release the ‘vasty fields of France’ in the imaginations of those who crammed within it. There is the extraordinary story of the overnight dismantling in north London and almost instant recreation of the theatre that became the Globe here in Southwark. Shakespeare knew the magic possible in this space. But I suspect it was less the physical space, more the space released in the imaginations of himself, actors and audiences that mattered to him.
“We are such stuff as dreams are made on.”
What mattered was the human ability to conjure up a dream – and through the magic of theatre to share those dreams.
There’s a magic in the collaboration of writing when it involves another writer, such as John Fletcher, or other actors such as Shakespeare’s 25 listed colleagues – or perhaps most importantly the collaboration that comes from the connection of a writer with the thoughts of an audience. A connection that creates something new at every performance across the centuries. And indeed The Bard & Co is another example of such collaboration.
And that’s what Alastair Creamer explores too in his chapter based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Even though Alastair made for a real place – a barn in the Sussex woods – what he found there (along with his seven hardy companions) was less to do with building materials and layouts than dreams and stories. This is the space that Shakespeare gives us, guides us towards, settles us into. Even though physical ‘magical spaces’, as Alastair puts it, can ease that process along.
But it’s the connection – and the attempt at connection – that matters.
One way we find that connection is through the empathy we feel, and are made to feel, by engaging with the humanity of characters. The fourth principle I suggest is this
Writing needs character
We paired each of our writers with a member of the original company. Sometimes the ‘principall actor’ listed was only a name – we know nothing more about him than the name. But other characters in this cast list live on after four centuries. And some of the most revealing writing in The Bard & Co comes from the development and bringing to life of characters about whom we know a little – yet next to nothing. But now, spurred by this name on the list of actors, we have some words to make us think, imagine and simply enjoy the playful process of characterisation. Try Laura Forman’s modern take on Willow Sly as she delivers a business workshop on Titus Andronicus. Or Jack Bradley’s equally sly and funny take on William Eccleston launching a new motor car in a Caribbean Tempest. The pairing of writer and actor leads to much puzzling over issues of identity. This all becomes appropriately farcical when writer Nick Asbury, paired with A Comedy of Errors, meets a contemporary Shakespearean actor also called Nick Asbury.
You need characters to tell stories. Businesses need to tell stories. So do brands. So modern business writers can learn much from Shakespeare about characterisation. The chapter in The Bard & Co that explores and explains this most is Jamie Jauncey’s on Romeo and Juliet, having also been paired with Will Kemp. Kemp is one of the original company about whom we do know something. But Jamie Jauncey brings him to life as even larger than life again in his chapter. This is how it begins, in March 1599:
“Damn that egghead Shakerags. Damn him and his mincing troupe of tragedy-mongers. A pox on their lofty ideals, their playing to the gallery. Damn their Globule too, verminous rackety pit that it is. They can keep it. I want no share of it.”
Of course, Will Kemp gave up his share of it. Shakespeare and his main shareholder-colleagues gained an extra percentage of the profits as a result. So Jamie takes this basis of a wild Falstaffian character and brings him into the 21st century and a corporate environment. The modern Will Kemp takes a group of Scottish & Newcastle HR and communication people off into the characters from Romeo and Juliet. The journey involves a fog-delayed flight to a performance in Stratford, where they each explore their modern equivalents of the Montagues and Capulets. It seems every company has them – there’s a Nurse, a Mercutio, a Paris, a Tybalt in every company if you just dig deep enough. And by the end of the exploration there’s Jamie Jauncey/Will Kemp having to give Shakespeare his due – “some seeds of enquiry, expansion, perhaps even enlightenment” have been sown.
It slides effortlessly into the next principle
Tell the story
At least two of our writers have taken their characters from the plays rather than from the original company. They have then set those characters down in corresponding situations in modern business life.
Based on King Henry IV, Andy Milligan tells the story of Harry Bolingbroke V, the young CEO of Angleland plc. There’s a notorious Field Sales Director called Jack Fivebellies Falstaff. But I think you can anticipate that Jack might be nearing the end of his privileged business career. The important thing, of course, is to defeat hostile takeover bids from the Percy Group and the Welsh Glendower Group. But what really makes Harry a winner in the boardroom battle is “he understands the value of talking plainly and simply”.
Gordon Kerr takes the story of Coriolanus and sets it A World Elsewhere, away from ancient Rome and in corporate England. From the opening scene of a traffic-jammed exodus from London, Gordon takes us from a brush with domestic tragedy into the ruthless business world of Guy Marks. This corporate hero is about to be sent into involuntary redundancy, banished for reasons he just cannot understand. Do we sympathise? Do we sympathise with Coriolanus? If characters live there needs to be a recognition of common humanity. And Shakespeare perhaps tells us most of all, that we feel that humanity by engaging with a story. There’s a lesson there for every business, every brand.
What these two interpretations show is that Shakespeare’s stories are not for their time but for all time. The universality and power of storytelling is explored by Liz Holt in her chapter based on The Merchant of Venice. It’s certainly true that any story is seen differently in the context of a particular time.
“Plays had to be politically expedient; the power of stories was feared. Today in many countries, writers of all types still live in fear of telling stories in all their forms.”
It’s a truth that 26 understands well, particularly as we put our minds to work on a new project to help International PEN and take up the causes of writers whose human rights and lives are threatened.
And here too, with The Merchant of Venice is a play that has prejudice and oppression at its very heart. The story of The Merchant of Venice is perhaps one where we feel some discomfort today – it seems alien, of its time. Yet it is also a story, a fundamental archetypal story, such as we know and understand today as readily as Shakespeare’s audience or audiences a thousand years earlier would have understood. We understand that really there are only a limited number of basic stories that we tell and retell in different ways for different times. Liz examines the power of mass storytelling today, particularly in the form of advertising, and her main conclusion is that the power of narrative remains there to be used – and perhaps misused by some too.
As that might imply, the essays in this book examine the moral dilemmas that writers face. The writers here generally earn their living by writing for businesses. Sometimes they are outside those businesses – freelance writers – sometimes they are inside, employed by the firm. Shakespeare might have felt some sympathy with both situations. In such a political and divided age as his Elizabethan and Jacobean times, he had to tread carefully. He knew how to maintain a balance between writing to meet the needs of the client – particularly the monarch – the needs of his audience and his own personal integrity.
Nothing much changes. It’s the same ground we have to cover today. It leads to my sixth principle
Be true to yourself
Mark Griffiths was paired with what he claims is the deep and dark play Othello. As you read his chapter you feel Mark grappling with inner demons and, as he admits, perhaps not cheerfully,
“After thinking and talking about it more, rewriting and rewriting, it has made me question why I’m a writer and understand my battles with writing in the marketplace.”
Mark and I used to work together so I know that these agonisings are genuine. As a writer for business myself, as a writer who believes, perhaps foolishly, that it’s important to have principles and to try to stick to them, I’m proud to have Mark speaking for me in this chapter – and speaking for other writers too. Mark once talked to me, when we both worked for a large brand consultancy, of the everyday battle against meaninglessness. Here the battle continues but perhaps his target has sharpened a little, come more into focus. Mark explains his battle now as being with cynicism. And I’m absolutely with him. We live in a desperately cynical age in which it becomes harder and harder to assert a belief in optimism, in values, in honesty, in public service. All these demons are brought out in Othello.
“Writing for business is all about service. We writers are doing the will of others. Yes, we have a choice with whom we work and for what we work – for money, for meaning, whatever.”
Mark then goes on to say that if all the characters in Othello were business writers
Othello would be the professional consultant brought in to do a job… Damned good at his job. But a loner.
Iago is the failed hack turned in-house communications manager… He stirs things up while keeping his corporate mask on.
Cassio’s been with the company for years. He’s loyal but no match for Iago’s manipulation.
Roderigo is the junior copywriter – never going to set the world alight.
Emelia’s the PA, the support, the brave whistleblower.
But Desdemona would not be a writer but writing itself. Loved by Othello until told she is no good. Destroyed by Othello.
“But, unlike Othello, we can destroy our first drafts and start again. We have to improve on it, remain true to our passion.”
All this brings me – and I think Mark takes me here – back to that principle. Be true to yourself. It’s all any of us really have to cling to.
“How do I reconcile my values with the client’s values? This is a question we have to answer every time we pick up a pen.”
It’s not easy, though. Perhaps you’re even more compromised when you work inside a company, an employee not a freelance. It’s the issue facing Katherine Penaloza who was paired with Twelfth Night. The dilemma for all of us is stated baldly in the first line.
“I am Malvolio. But so are you. There’s a bit of Malvolio in us all, for deception is endemic in human nature and human relationships.”
In particular, we deceive ourselves, for that was Malvolio’s real deception. Katherine explores the idea of deception and self-deception in modern business. She lives and works in Singapore, a city that revolves around business. She tells tales of office politics and hierarchies, the importance of visible signs of rank, the possibilities of miscommunication and misinterpretation. A Singapore office block becomes uncannily like Illyria, the world of Twelfth Night. She concludes:
“So when people or companies talk of integrity, rather than taking it at face value, perhaps we should consider it as, at best, a statement of intent. One company’s mission statement prided itself on four key values: respect, integrity, communication and excellence. That company was Enron.”
The only way to stand against this, as a writer, is to say: be true to yourself. Even as you recognise that there’s a bit of Malvolio in all of us.
Of course, the next principle might, in one sense, seem almost a contradiction of that.
Share your thinking
But I’m not saying ‘share your thinking’ while losing the sense of your own individuality or personality. The creative industries – design, marketing, branding, advertising – are natural collaborators. That’s simply the way they work. And the collaborations usually revolve around words. Often they directly involve a writer. The classic creative team in advertising brings together the copywriter and the art director, words and images.
Even though Fraser Southey in his wonderfully funny chapter on As You Like It writes it as a diary – speaking to himself – there is a real sense of others being involved in his meditations. We get scenes of Fraser reciting passages to his wife and children, getting dressed up for a family performance, discussing the play with a friend in the pub, even engaging in some kind of internet competition with Shakespeare and Robert Armin. He talks out loud to share his thinking. It becomes a creative partnership with the reader.
That’s a difficult, and still brave thing to do, because we all have some reluctance to expose our thinking to scrutiny. Just in case someone tells us we’re talking rubbish. Nicola David, writing about Measure for Measure raises the stakes by using the play to explore the idea that we all have an incompetence threshold, that we all must accept judgement as we judge.
It’s a principle that you need if a real creative partnership is to work, as Emma Lawson suggests in her chapter on Much Ado about Nothing. Seeing Beatrice and Benedick as a duo who strike creative sparks off each other, she draws lessons for the kind of creative partnerships that are needed in, say, a design company or advertising agency. There’s part of me too that wonders whether this kind of partnership was welcome or not to Shakespeare himself. Perhaps we romanticise the image of Will sitting alone at a desk, quill pen in hand, handing down unblotted masterpieces for the company to learn and perform verbatim. I suspect Shakespeare was subjected – even when he wasn’t in an active collaboration with another writer – to the editing and revisions brought about by performance. He might well have endorsed Emma’s advice to creative partnerships
1. take risks
2. keep your imagination well fed
3. share your ideas
4. go for the Aero moments
5. stay open
6. exercise your right to delete …
… and don’t forget your audience. As if he ever could. The great thing that the Globe makes clear, and has re-established for us, is the creative effect of an audience. Awareness of the audience sharpens all our writing.
Think what is not said
is my eighth principle. In performance this becomes clear. We watch the actors and we read their thoughts from their faces, body movements and gestures. Because words, although all-powerful, have their limits. Even when, as David Varela analyses, a character like Richard III is able to use words to persuade in seemingly impossible situations. David talks about Shakespeare giving Richard a “serpentine ability to make anyone believe anything”. It’s a “masterclass in persuasion” – David is writing about that scene when Richard woos Queen Anne who knows that Richard killed her husband and father-in-law – and this wooing takes place at the funeral, so the pain and grief are fresh in her.
The scene is brilliant, one of the most compelling in Shakespeare. Of course it’s because of the words but it’s also because we imagine what Anne must be thinking, perhaps should be thinking, when Richard talks to her. As an audience, we’re complicit in the deception. Loathsome as Richard is, we are on his side – on the side of immorality – to a degree that surprises our rational minds. But it shows that we are not rational creatures, we are swayed by emotion not reason. Just as advertising works on our minds too, a point David draws out with the use of advertising slogans as his cross-headings. Just do it. Think different. Pure genius.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that this principle – Think what is not said – was prompted in my mind by the chapter written by Rob Andrews. Rob’s a designer and he’s written about Julius Caesar. And Rob has a complaint directed to Mr Shakespeare. Where are the clues? Where are the stage directions? Where are the twelve camera angles if you press the red button? Because at what he feels is the crux of the play, as Brutus moves towards a resolution to kill Caesar, well, does he? Or doesn’t he? Everything is left ambiguous. All is in the imagination of the audience, perhaps led by the interpretation of a particular actor and director. And, as Rob riffs on these thoughts and questions, weaving in and out of his working life with corporate identity and brands, the chapter becomes a confrontation with issues of honesty and dishonesty. Whatever our own particular conclusions to the moral dilemmas raised, the chapter is valuable in helping us –through the medium of Shakespeare – to face up to them. That is what Shakespeare constantly does, why he is forever young, he enables us to think about what is right and wrong, what is said honestly or not, and to see below the surface meaning of words.
Perhaps my favourite quotation, and a very succinct one, is not from Shakespeare but E M Forster. Only connect. Our minds have the ability to make connections where at first none seem to exist. Perhaps it’s what we really mean by creativity. We don’t interpret the world literally, we don’t just go from facts and figures, we work from feelings, we join the dots and make a new meaning out of what might have seemed meaningless.
Robert Mighall’s chapter on Timon of Athens is fascinating because it is based on a single word in the play. The word is ‘fortune’. Robert describes Timon of Athens as “Shakespeare’s least read, least produced and most unusual play”. Those first words in Robert’s chapter had me leaping to Timon’s defence. But then I realised I hadn’t read the play for forty years and have only seen it performed on stage once. It’s a play about delusion, particularly the delusions of wealth, but it’s also a savage rant of a play. It seems as rough and brutal as Timon himself when he banishes himself to the woods. Yet, as Robert explores, it achieves amazing subtlety through this single word ‘fortune’ that was on the cusp of moving from one established meaning (to do with fate, luck) to a new meaning that is all about money. And in a sense, if we’re prepared to work at making the connections from this single word, the whole meaning of the play can be explored from countless angles.
It’s Shakespeare’s ability to make us think that means that he is forever young. He can help us to see the universal in a detail, to make the connections between the specific and the general, to see similarities between seemingly dissimilar situations. His language is metaphorical, but so is his effect on our minds. We see a play like The Taming of the Shrew and Ezri Carlebach is able to explore the ins and outs, not of marriage, but of corporate mergers. And why not? It’s what keeps Shakespeare alive for us, this constantly changing ability to make us reinterpret the world for new times and new situations.
How does he do it? Simply through words. Because that is really the only tangible legacy Shakespeare has passed to us through four centuries. We know little about his life. The little we know is a matter for constant dispute by historians. Even the authorship remains in dispute by some. Who was Shakespeare? Was he Bacon, or an aristocrat, rather than the glovemaker’s son from Stratford upon Avon? In the end it doesn’t matter, all that matters is what we have, Shakespeare’s words. And so I suggest as a tenth principle
Words are life
This in the end is what Shakespeare comes down to. He shows us – as modern users and writers of this language, English – that it is the most precious gift we have, the gift of language. Through language we understand and explain the world, and we share that understanding imperfectly perhaps – with others.
This is what Elen Lewis (Winter’s Tale), Dan Radley (Antony & Cleopatra), Lu Hersey (Henry V), John Bolton (Hamlet), Brian Millar (Troilus & Cressida) and all the authors in the book come down to. Shakespeare’s great gift to us as modern writers is that he shows us how to love words and, by loving words, to love life.
The one chapter I haven’t yet mentioned is the one that expresses this most clearly and openly. Writing about Richard II, Elise Valmorbida points out that language is at the heart of the king’s Englishness. Faced with banishment from England, the thought of not seeing, smelling, touching the beloved land brings tears to the eyes of the banished. But the thought of losing connection with the language brings a much deeper level of anguish. “How long a time lies in one little word!” laments Bolingbroke, hearing that his ten-year exile has just been commuted to six.
We need to keep seeing Shakespeare in fresh ways that are right for the different times we live through. To see that Shakespeare is forever young and to understand that it’s language that provides the route to fresh insight. Above all, Shakespeare teaches us to cherish, nurture, sustain, love this resource of language that we all too often take for granted. If ever they were tempted to be indifferent about words, the process of engagement with Shakespeare’s language has sharpened afresh the value of words for this group of writers. It’s a shame that we need to rediscover that truth. But that is the reality of life. It constantly changes and we see it differently from one day to the next. Words are everything in that process. We need to care for them even more, and they will repay us for the effort.
So I have one final thing to do to conclude this lecture. Out there in the audience there are ten Dark Angels – people who have been on one of my writing courses where we explore words and writing over the course of several days in a remote location. I’ve persuaded these 10 people – conscripted volunteers – to help me string some final words together in a collective effort. With luck – and completely without rehearsal – these words will all come together in a way that sums up the main points of this lecture. And I felt that to end, I needed something that was both at least a nod towards performance and Shakespeare. So here we go …
Sonnet with 10 different people reading one of the principles embedded in it
O be inventive with your words, new life
Enlivened by your voice, be proud they speak
And listen to the sounds of joy or strife
That rise on lips – but find the space you seek.
All writing needs character, start with you,
So tell the story, strike the spark inside
That leads to fire, the flame that burns be true
To yourself, you have the choice to flare or hide.
It’s best to share your thinking, set the spread
Upon the board, then feast your eyes, lend ears
And breathe more deeply; think what is not said,
Just make connections between your hopes and fears.
Now act the good husband, be the good wife,
Words are your children, raise them, words are life.
There you have it. A sonnet. Thank you.
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