Why everyone should experience Shakespearean drama

This has been a very Shakespearean-themed week at St Mary’s Calne. On Monday evening, a group of Year 9 girls battled illness, stormy weather and the curse of the Scottish play to present a succinct and striking Macbeth to a full house at the Egg Theatre in Bath, as part of the Shakespeare Schools’ Festival. I congratulate them all – from an impressive Macbeth and Lady Macbeth to two deadly witches, the entire cast was worthy of praise. Well done!

From Tuesday onwards, our school focus then turned to Hamlet, as our annual school production took place – four performances, with two casts, over three days, involving a third of the school. Twelve hours of Hamlet in all, and I was there for every glorious minute. It was a veritable tour de force: a magnificent feat. The girls are to be congratulated, and although I dare not single out one particular individual (even though both Hamlets were truly breathtaking – exceptional), I reserve a special congratulations for our Year 13 girls, whose acting was so strong, and utterly spellbinding.

Why should anyone in this day and age continue to watch Shakespeare, however – and Shakespearean tragedy, at that? Well, at the risk of sounding like a shortened A Level English essay, there are several reasons, ranging from the cultural to the linguistic, but primarily because Shakespeare touches on, and immerses us in, what it means to be human. His work has passed the test of time because of his skills in portraying the human condition, and the paradoxes of what it means to live on this earth:

“What a piece of work is man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and in moving, how express and admirable in action, how like an angel in apprehension, how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals. And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?” (Hamlet, Act 2 Scene 2)

What indeed? Well, despite the fogs of depression and madness to which we all (not just Hamlet) succumb at times, man – mankind, humankind – is a true marvel, and this was absolutely captured for all of us who saw these performances by the wonderful girls of St Mary’s Calne. No-one could have put this better than their legendary Director of Drama, Miss Lilian Leadbetter, who wrote this:

“There is no better theatrical universe in which to be immersed than that of Shakespeare – and Hamlet, arguably the greatest of all revenge tragedies, stands at the axis of his work, a towering presence. There are no subjects or thoughts about the human condition in Hamlet which are not references, illuminated or imbued with the most profound insights by Shakespeare, the greatest of all dramatists.

From the tormented soul of Hamlet, ‘sweet prince’ and reluctant avenger, we are given an overwhelming sense of fragmentation and alienation; yet he presents us with the most poignant and beautiful portrayal of human existence. It has been an honour to enter and explore the world of Prince Hamlet. Only with the very best of “new Elizabethans”, the great actors and students of St Mary’s Calne, might we take on the challenge – travelling ‘light years’ across the Renaissance universe – with a ‘double ensemble’ – in just seven weeks.”

Hear, hear! Bravo, St Mary’s Calne!

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