Chapter and verse on Shakespeare - the greatest writer in the language

PIC: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images
PIC: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images
0
Have your say

He is the greatest writer in the English language so we asked actors, playwrights, theatre directors and an academic to tell us ‘What Shakespeare means to me…’ Compiled by Chris Bond.

Mark Babych, artistic director, 
Hull Truck Theatre

Directing Shakespeare has often felt like getting in the ring with a complete master of their craft and trying to wrestle them to the ground – the plays are so brilliant, so truthful, bigger, richer, and more complex than most plays. At times I have felt quite intimidated – the language, the characters, the insights into the complexity and depth of the human soul, all these interweave and dance around you in the rehearsal room and always I feel the genius of the playwright in the room continuing to ask questions of us and the story’s relevance to the world. But directing Shakespeare has never failed to give me the richest and most rewarding of experiences.

Paul Robinson, artistic director, Stephen Joseph Theatre

The most important thing to remember for me is that Shakespeare was a new writer. I find it really exciting to think about Shakespeare in the rehearsal room with his company of actors, putting a play together for the very first time, playing to the strengths of a (semi-) permanent company. At the Stephen Joseph Theatre we’re focused on new writing, and plays which we consider to have “popular excellence”. Shakespeare was writing exactly these sorts of plays, for a huge cross section of society, and writing for a shared space between audience and actors. It’s inspiring to think about how radical many of his ideas were and yet how popular too.

Deb McAndrew, playwright

Shakespeare explores the human condition in the art form that is most meaningful and accessible for me – drama. He does this with the most extraordinary dexterity and profundity. As a writer he is unparalleled for me, and if I could have played one role in my acting life it would have been Hamlet. He is the character that I believe could teach me the most about what it means to be human. Shakespeare’s plays are like friends, companions in my life, and always will be. His genius is unquestionable. When I sit with the internet at my fingertips, autocorrect, cut-and-paste, and all the time-saving wonders, what could be more humbling than to remember that Shakespeare wrote all his plays… with a feather!

Robert Hastie, artistic director of Sheffield Theatres

My teacher Mrs Mack organised annual trips to Stratford, so I fell in love with Shakespeare at the age of 12. It was The Comedy of Errors, and it was hilarious. The next night was King Lear, which I didn’t understand much of, but the eye gouging was good. I’ve directed lots of the plays now – next up is Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Crucible in October. Every time I learn important life lessons; about leadership from Henry V, about politics from Julius Caesar, about friendship from just about all of them. I’m always struck by how, as well as being a brilliant dramatist, he was a sharp, creative businessman. His company was the most successful of its day.

Professor Judith Buchanan, Department of English and Related Literature, University of York

In addition to giving me a cracking night out at the theatre, Shakespeare also inhabits the inner corners of my mind. His phrases are embedded deep in my consciousness and, from there, they have a habit of finding their way into how I see and experience the world. I find that they appear, unbidden, at all sorts of moments in life. Whether I am feeling wonder, or trauma, or love, or loss, Shakespeare has articulated this ahead of me with an elegance that helps me give expression to what I am experiencing. These connect me to the wider tide of human feeling by reminding me that this is not uniquely my experience.

Sir Patrick Stewart, actor and Emeritus Chancellor of the University of Huddersfield

I have been emptying the contents of a Bermondsey storage space I filled to the roof thirteen years ago. There were boxes of books and several were grubby, much-handled Shakespeare plays. They were full of scribbled notes, underlinings, words, sentences and sometimes whole speeches. And, of course, one role in each, highlighted. I made a separate pile of them for shredding, burning, or just putting back in a box and closing the lid. I did none of those things. Holding them in my hands, I felt the weight of their history. I knew I was going to keep them. Not just because they were Shakespeare but because those texts are part of me.

Conrad Nelson, artistic director and joint CEO of Northern Broadsides

My first encounter with Shakespeare was when I was three years old and I was allowed to stay up late to watch the ballet of Romeo and Juliet on TV. It started in me a lifelong love of Shakespeare and that play in particular. My first ever trip to the West Yorkshire Playhouse was as a 14-year-old to watch Romeo and Juliet in 1995, and just over twenty years later a dream came true when I got to stage my own production of that extraordinary play at the Playhouse. Shakespeare is challenging – the language can be tough, his stories complex. But what I love about Shakespeare is his ambition of thought and heart. His plays, his language, his stories are all epic.

Amy Leach, West Yorkshire Playhouse associate director

My first encounter with Shakespeare was when I was three years old and I was allowed to stay up late to watch the ballet of Romeo and Juliet on TV. It started in me a lifelong love of Shakespeare and that play in particular. My first ever trip to the West Yorkshire Playhouse was as a 14-year-old to watch Romeo and Juliet in 1995, and just over twenty years later a dream came true when I got to stage my own production of that extraordinary play at the Playhouse. Shakespeare is challenging – the language can be tough, his stories complex. But what I love about Shakespeare is his ambition of thought and heart. His plays, his language, his stories are all epic.

Alexander Vlahos, actor – Romeo (Romeo & Juliet) & Catesby (Richard III)

My theatrical career has been entwined with the words of the Bard since drama school, thanks to Robin Sneller – a director who came in and taught me to cherish it. I fell truly 
head over in heels in love with it watching the Glory Weekend at the RSC. Jonathan Slinger’s mesmerising performance, playing both Richard II and Richard III, bookending a 
theatrical marathon of history plays 
was truly an eye-opening experience that will stay with me forever. I am blessed beyond words to be playing 
one half of the ‘lovers’ in what will 
be an exciting summer of Shakespeare in York.

A POEM TO THE BARD FROM BARRIE RUTTER

He’s the man who’s paid the mortgage

On some thousands and odd nights!

He’s the chap who’s filled the passport with quaint stamps.

He’s a baffler, he’s sublime,

He’s the mountain ripe to climb;

Full of pimps or prickly Emperors, Queens or Vamps!

Through Halifax, Hull ’n Hamburg

He’s been my travelling pal,

Companionship cemented in great verse.

Shanghai, Sydney, Rio

With Antony and Cleo.

A stuttering sow’s ear made pure silk purse.

My present Bardic trek

Is showing at the Globe

A tale of Noble Kinsmen and their feud

Music, dance ‘n singing

On London’s south bank ringing,

Fine acting, glorious costumes- and it’s rude!

So pack your “bag and baggage”

Don’t “play fast or loose”,

It ends it’s run on thirtieth of June

Don’t “give the devil his due”

Or you’ll be “the more fool you”

We’ll please and entertain, but make it soon!

– Barrie Rutter, actor 
and theatre director