Thursday, 19 January 2012

John Bell On Shakespeare

This evening I was lucky enough to be able to attend a talk by John Bell, founder and director of the Bell Shakespeare Company. The talk was both interesting and humorous, and he was a great speaker. John Bell discussed topics such as Shakespeare's sonnets mocking the traditional sequence of events in sonnets, and the ridiculousness of people claiming that others had written Shakespeare's plays. The three main contenders for the role of the phantom playwright were all impossible. Francis Bacon wrote all his works in Latin, which he saw as purer than English, and once tried Shakespeare for treason over the mocking of royalty in one of his plays. Both Christopher Marlowe and The Earl of Oxford died before several of Shakespeare's plays were even written, and the plays allude to historical events that happened after these deaths.

I also loved the discussion of the difference between plays in those days and nowadays. Back then, they took place in daylight (which would have been useful, since there was no electricity to light the stage) and the audience were often in a semi circle, visible to the stage and each other. The actors would move around the stage a lot more to face different parts of the audience, and address them through soliloquies. It was more of a shared and involved experience. Nowadays the seating is normally more flat, more of a rectangle than a semi-circle. The audience sit in the dark and it is less of a shared experience and more of a individual one.

As a future librarian (and book addict) I was interested in what he said about Shakespeare's reading habits. Unlike some others, such as Ben Johnson, he did not have a large collection of books. Books in that time were expensive, and Shakespeare moved often between his home at Stratford-Upon-Avon, and London. John Bell thinks that it is likely Shakespeare borrowed books from Ben Johnson's library, and read others in bookshops. I think I also like this, because it is rather a mirror of my own habits. We are always passing books around the family, taking turns to read them, and I borrow a lot of my reading from libraries. This is one of the reasons why libraries serve such an essential purpose, allowing us to read more books than our bank accounts would allow if we had to buy them all.

I was also one of the lucky ones who got to ask a question, getting in the last question before the end of the talk. I asked how he felt about the use of modern language in Shakespeare rewrites, such as the Twitter Romeo and Juliet (cringe!) which I find ironic because if they had had access to something like Twitter they probably would not have died. Bell replied that he enjoys the concept of modernisations and rewrites of Shakespeare but dislikes the modern English translations in textbooks where you can read all the modern English and ignore the old English, because this doesn't encourage kids to learn and love the real version and makes it dry.

I wish I could have made better notes as I have not been able to rephrase everything as well as it was said, and there were so many other interesting topics that were discussed, but this will have to do. All in all, it was a fascinating evening, and I am so glad that I got to go.

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