“Why Shakespeare? Because it’s 2016” | Stephen Brown | TEDxStMaryCSSchool

Translator: Tanya Cushman
Reviewer: Peter van de Ven So I thought Craig said,
“Come do a TED Talk for my students,” and I thought, “Why? I’m a professor. I get paid to talk for 50 minutes. How the hell am I only going to be able
to talk for 15 or 18?” So I thought, “I’ll give it a go.” I said, “What should I do?”
He said, “Talk about Shakespeare.” And I thought, “Why Shakespeare?
Why Shakespeare?” The only answer I could come up with was to plagiarize our gorgeous,
young Prime Minister and say, “Well, it’s 2016.” That’s a start. And it’s the easiest one because 400 years and 6 days ago, on April 23rd, Shakespeare died. Prince died this week. He’s had a lot of press. Would he still have that press
400 years from now? I don’t know. Will there be a press 400 years from now? Probably not. So why? Why after 400 years? In 2012, during the London Olympics,
lots of exciting things happened. One of them we probably all remember
is the lightning man, right? Usain Bolt repeated it again, right? Won all those sprint events. Hundreds of thousands of people
witnessed something else. Every Olympics match a sport with culture. And there’s always a Cultural Olympiad. In 2012, in London,
they chose Shakespeare. There were over 100 productions between April the 23rd
and the end of the event in November. Seventy of those took place
in the Globe Theatre. They represented countries,
over 40 countries from around the world, and they were in 37 different languages. Why? Most of those countries
had been colonized by the English. Having thrown off
all the shackles of colonization, why had they kept Shakespeare? And why did they want to listen
to Shakespeare in their own language? And why, when they came to London, did thousands of people living in London
whose origins were in those countries come to listen to Shakespeare in the language
into which they had been born? That’s what I want to talk
to you about today: the power of listening to Shakespeare. That’s why I don’t want a text up there. Because that would contradict me, right? And that’s why I’m glad
we closed that book. When Shakespeare was first performed,
and for well over 200 years, when people wrote about going to plays, when they wrote about
going to a Shakespeare play or any play, they would write in their diary, they would write
in their commonplace book, “Last night I went, and I heard
Midsummer Night’s Dream.” “Last night I went, and I heard Hamlet.” No one ever wrote,
until well into the 19th century, that they saw a play. Because a play is about voice, and no one understood that
more than Shakespeare did. We are there because it consoles us
to hear a human voice, because we want a voice to make
the sounds of joy and sorrow for us. Because what matters in life
is what we apprehend, what we seize, what seizes us – those things that make us terrified, and those things that make us joyful. And theater brings us those,
and Shakespeare, no more so. So it’s curious – not tragic, just curious – that when students
come to me at university, the majority of them say,
“Oh, Shakespeare. I don’t know. It was always so hard in high school.” Some would say,
“Oh, I loved it. I loved it.” I’d say, “What did you love about it?” “Oh, the movies. There are
such great Shakespeare movies.” And I have to say, “Well, no, no, no, no. Shakespeare is not
about watching a movie.” There has to be a person there, a person who is enduring the story for us so that in witnessing it, we can be grasped and grasp in turn the emotions that are being experienced. Don’t be afraid of Shakespeare, right? Most of my students, many of you – one of the reasons I thought,
“Well, we’ll do this,” is because Craig said
there’ll be over 900 students here, and they’re all going to be doing
Shakespeare at some point, holding their noses or not. I said, “What do they do?” “Well, the usual things: Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth.” I thought, “Great.
We’ll get there. We’ll see. We’ll talk about some of those.” But most of them probably also use
the No Fear Shakespeare cribs, that translate Shakespeare into English as if it wasn’t English to begin with. And the Sparks Notes people
have made millions of dollars off the backs of No Fear Shakespeare when we shouldn’t have feared him
to begin with, right? And Shakespeare
never made a penny in his life off of the printing of his plays. He could not have cared less. When the Folio came out,
seven years after his death, it came out because the surviving partners
of his company wanted to make a memorial. He never cared. There were hundreds
of editions of his works; he never made a penny on them. Because it wasn’t about reading. And that’s what I want to focus on now. I want to take a couple of scenes,
and I want to talk you through them, and I want to try to give you a sense of what you can apprehend
when you look and listen. And what I’m going to say to you now
and perhaps repeat in concluding – because I have no idea where I’m going; it will depend on what we hear
when we listen to these texts – Don’t look for meaning. There isn’t any. Don’t look for a thesis. Don’t hunt themes. Don’t analyze metaphors. Don’t worry about what
you’re going to write your essay about. Just listen. And open yourself up as you listen. And be very responsive to what you feel. Because apprehension
is far more important than comprehension, and in Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of Shakespeare’s extraordinary
figures, the Duke Theseus, says precisely that
at the end of the play. He says, “One of the most interesting
things about life is this.” He said, “Whenever we apprehend an effect, we want to comprehend a cause.” And that’s a problem, especially with theater and always with life. Something happens to us,
and we want to know why. Well, the cause doesn’t matter. Who knows what the first cause
of anything is? Was it God the Creator or the Big Bang? They’re beyond my comprehension, right? But in the moment of life, I apprehend constantly
what it is to be living, and to seek meaning in that rather than to simply swim in the luxuriousness
of my own soul and heart seems like an extraordinary
abandonment of the joy of living. So let’s look at Shakespeare. We’ll go through maybe just one scene. The screen here tells me
I’ve got nine-and-a-half minutes. We’ll see what we can do. That’ll give us enough for one. I’ll give you a choice;
I’ve got a few ideas. Let’s go for two
that are big ones out there. If you haven’t encountered them yet,
you’re going to in your high school years. Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet. Which one do you want? (Audience) Hamlet.
Romeo and Juliet. Hamlet. I think, I think Romeo and Juliet. Right? Wrong? Craig? If I can stay – oh boy,
I’m under nine minutes now. So if I can talk like the Bolt Man, if we can get through this scene,
maybe we do a bit of Hamlet, maybe finish with a moment from Hamlet. Here we go. What I’m going to do with Romeo and Juliet is go to the scene
where we first meet Juliet because it tells us something
about Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s great at women. He’s great at listening to women
and making us listen to women. And there’s a reason for that. Because in his lifetime,
no woman was ever on the stage. No woman ever acted on the English stage until 1665. So men always played the parts of women, and not just boys. There were men in the company who spent their entire career
aging through female parts. So in this scene, we first meet Juliet. We have Juliet, and we have the Nurse,
and we have Lady Capulet. Three principal women from the play. We’ve not met Juliet yet; it’s Act 1, scene 3. The Nurse is sitting, Lady Capulet we’ve met,
and she comes in and says, “Where’s my daughter?” We met Lady Capulet in Act 1, scene 1, when the men were all fighting,
causing all that difficulty – the Montagues and the Capulets
wrestling with one another, men drawing their swords, all demonstrating their masculinity. Excruciatingly funny. And Lady Capulet knows that,
and she mocks her husband. She says to him, “Why bother
getting your sword out, old man? There’s no point to it.” She’s a strong woman. So she comes in, and she says,
“Where’s my daughter?” And the Nurse says, “Oh,
by my maiden head these last 12 years,” she says, “I called her; she didn’t come.” She says, “I swear by my virginity at 12,
I’ve been calling her. I don’t know where she is,” and then she gets up,
and she says, “Juliet,” – No, no, I don’t want that.
I don’t want anything up there. Can we just kill that? Is it impossible? How do I kill those screens? Great – And she starts calling her: “Ladybird. My dear one. Where are you?” In most productions, Juliet’s on the balcony
or she’s not on stage, because the text says, “Enter Juliet.” It’s always – in the original printings, they say, “Enter,”
when the character speaks. She’s already there. Everything the Nurse is saying,
if you listen – right? – is what you do when you’re playing
with a small child. You must have all done that, or an aunt or an uncle or parent
has done that with you. Joey, Joey, where are you, Joey? My goodness, Joey.
When are you going to come? My, what am I going to do with you, Joey? And where’s Joey the whole time? Right there. Right behind you,
and you pretend you don’t see him. That’s where Juliet is if we really are listening
to what the Nurse is doing there. “Ladybird. My dear one. Where are you?” And Lady Capulet is standing, watching. And eventually Juliet says,
“Here I am. Who wants me?” – playing with the Nurse. The Nurse says, “Your mother.” And Lady Capulet says to the Nurse, “Will you give us a minute? There’s something
I need to tell my daughter.” And the Nurse begins to leave, and Lady Capulet says,
“No, come back. Please, come back.” And what she needs to tell Juliet is, “Your father has decided
that you’re going to be married now, and you’re going to meet tonight
the man you’re going to marry.” Now, what’s crucial in this scene,
if we are listening and looking, is what Lady Capulet’s doing. Because always in Shakespeare in crucial scenes
when he wants us to listen, there’s a listener on stage, and here it’s Lady Capulet, listening while her daughter
plays with the Nurse, and then the Nurse tells a long story, a comic story about Juliet growing up, and Juliet’s mother listens, knowing that she’s about to tell
her daughter childhood is over. What’s she feeling while she’s listening? What does any parent feel? At that moment – commonly in tv ads – when you give your child
the keys to the car for the first time? When you leave them
at their university residence? When their probation officer
comes and takes them away? (Laughter) Whatever the point, where you realize, What happened to my child? How did I miss that? If we’re listening, that’s what’s happening in that scene. Most productions miss that
because people are reading, and they ignore Lady Capulet. An extraordinary thing happens
when the Nurse is talking. They’re trying to figure out
how old Juliet is, and her mother says, “Oh, you know,
I don’t think she’s 14 yet.” And the Nurse is, “Oh, no, no.
It will be two weeks. I remember because my Susan,
my daughter, and her were born at the same time. My Susan, who God took from me because she was too good for me.” The Nurse’s daughter died
in her infancy, and Juliet lived. The Nurse says that, looking at Juliet, and Lady Capulet is looking at Juliet, and two daughters are dead. And if we’re not listening, we miss that. The Nurse tells us, “My Susan died
almost 14 years ago.” And Lady Capulet is thinking, “My child will be lost to me in two weeks when she marries Paris, and away she goes to live with him.” And when the child I remember playing
just disappears, is gone. That’s the crucial thing about listening. I’ve got two minutes. I’ll very quickly tell you something
about Hamlet and then tie this up. At the end of Hamlet, when all the swordplay is going on
and the poisoning, and a dozen people
are going to be dead on stage, and it’s going to be full of spectacle, and it turns into a real guy flick, right? There’s a chick moment in there
that’s powerful, and it’s about mothers. Gertrude says nothing but three lines. The first of them is, “Hamlet,
let me wipe your brow. Take my napkin,” she says,
“and wipe your brow. You look so tired.” At the start of the play, she’d wanted
to touch him, and he wouldn’t let her. He never lets her touch him; he pulls away because he’s angry at her
for marrying his uncle, right? Shakespeare gives her
as her second-last line, “Let me wipe thy brow,” and she takes her handkerchief
and wipes the sweat off her son’s brow, just the way your mother,
even when you’re 62 like me, on a cold day, will tighten up your jacket or call you at university and say,
“Is it snowing? Wear your mittens.” When we don’t listen in life,
we miss the small things. In literature, listening is crucial
to getting those things too. That’s why Shakespeare matters. Not because we should read him, but because we should be listening to him. At the beginning of Hamlet,
there’s a man who’s all alone on stage, Francisco, waiting to be relieved by Bernardo. He can be out there alone as long as the director
wants to leave him there, say nothing. Bernardo comes, and Bernardo says,
“Who’s there?” because it’s dark. And Francisco says, “Nay. [Answer me. Stand]
and unfold yourself,” he says. Open yourself up to me. And I say to you, unfold yourself when you read Shakespeare. Close the book, open yourself up, apprehend, and you won’t worry about the meaning. Unfold, listen and allow life
and literature to touch you. Thank you. (Applause)


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