The Bard of Stratford
The 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare
by Brian Radcliffe
Suitable for Whole School (Sec)
To explore the value of the past and the influence of William Shakespeare today (SEAL theme: Managing feelings - about the past).
Preparation and materials
You will need a leader and three readers. If possible, choose students who have some acting ability. Encourage them, for example, to use emphasis as they say the insults to each other to make them come to life!
Have available the ‘Horrible Histories William Shakespeare Song’, from the Horrible Histories CBBC series, and the means to play it at the end of the assembly. This can be found at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=65Cy4-rfd24
Leader: William Shakespeare: love him or hate him? He's certainly a writer who divides opinions. His plays have been part of the school curriculum for generations of, if we're honest, largely unwilling readers.
You may wish to express your own opinions about Shakespeare.
April 2016 marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. That's the source of the problem many people have with ‘The Bard’ - he lived and wrote such a long, long time ago. We don't dress like they did 400 years ago. We don't eat and drink like they did 400 years ago. We don't travel like they did 400 years ago. Most important of all, we don't speak like they did 400 years ago. We have no ‘forsooths’, ‘perchances’ or ‘methinks’ in our speech today, so why should we be expected to enjoy reading the plays and poems this man wrote way back then?
I want to give you three reasons for doing so.
The first is his storytelling ability. He wrote plays that set the standard for so many theatre and film genres.
Reader 1: Where would romcoms be without Romeo and Juliet? It's the archetypal teenage love story. The parents don't see eye to eye, there's a jealous rival, misunderstandings, drunken friends, secrecy, outpourings of emotion and a tragic resolution. Whether it's West Side Story, Romeo Must Die, Warm Bodies (the zombie version) or Baz Luhrmann's epic with Leonardo DiCaprio and Clare Danes, to name but a few, every generation has discovered its version of the star-crossed lovers.
Reader 2: If you prefer violent gangster movies, then look at Macbeth. Treachery, guilt, double crossing and a strong occult influence, with the villain eventually getting his just deserts. Quentin Tarantino must look at this play on a regular basis.
Reader 3: That's just for starters. Hamlet forms the basis of The Lion King. 10 Things I Hate about You comes straight from The Taming of the Shrew. The Tempest provides the plot for the Forbidden Planet film. Shakespeare also gives us a lot of cross-dressing, which is a double-layered joke as boys played the female parts in his plays when they were originally performed. There are histories, tragedies and comedies, plus many plays that simply defy attempts at classification.
Leader: There's much more, too. The second reason is all the words Shakespeare invented that are in common use today. Where would we be without all these?
Reader 1: There's addiction, assassination, blanket, cold-blooded, dishearten and hobnob.
Reader 2: There's jaded, luggage, moonbeam, pedant, premeditated and puking.
Reader 3: Then there's scuffle, torture, grovel, swagger, mimic and tranquil.
Leader: That's just a small selection. Unfortunately, some of the others are far too rude for genteel young people like yourselves!
The third reason for us to spend time with his writing is the sheer ingenuity of his mind. One of his special talents was dreaming up insults.
Reader 1: Thou art like a toad, ugly and venomous.
Reader 2: You scullion! You rampallian! You fustilarian! I’ll tickle your catastrophe!
Reader 3: A most notable coward, an infinite and endless liar, an hourly promise breaker, the owner of no one good quality.
Reader 1: Thou clay-brained guts, thou knotty-pated fool, thou whoreson obscene greasy tallow-catch!
Reader 2: That trunk of humours, that bolting-hutch of beastliness, that swollen parcel of dropsies, that huge bombard of sack, that stuffed cloak-bag of guts, that roasted Manningtree ox with pudding in his belly, that reverend vice, that grey Iniquity, that father ruffian, that vanity in years?
Reader 3: You starvelling, you eel-skin, you dried neat’s-tongue, you bull’s-pizzle, you stock-fish – O for breath to utter what is like thee! - you tailor’s-yard, you sheath, you bow-case, you vile standing tuck!
Leader: Save one of those for when you're really annoyed with someone!
Time for reflection
Shakespeare died 400 years ago, yet his influence is still felt in our daily lives. He set the standard by which all poets and scriptwriters are still measured. So there's plenty of reason to spend time with his works, even though we may find some of what he wrote more appealing than others. Remember, too, his plays were not written to be read in a classroom or studied on their own. They were written to be performed by talented actors in front of an audience, of which you are a part.
You see, just because something is old it doesn't mean that it has nothing to say to us today. This is true not only for poets, novelists and playwrights but also for artists, choreographers, architects and musicians - in fact, all talented people throughout history. We are fortunate in having the combined genius of all the centuries available to us and we can dip our toes into such historical variety or study it in a systematic manner. Shakespeare reminds us of just how rich we are!
Thank you for all that we can respond to from history.
Thank you that there is still infinitely more for us to explore.
May we be inquisitive and lacking in prejudice about the past.
‘Horrible histories William Shakespeare song’ from the Horrible Hisories CBBC series