Welcome to our fourth and final guest post from The Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company. This one is by Peer Leader Ryan Henry. THSC is a music theatre production company that explores the social, cultural and linguistic parallels between the works of William Shakespeare and that of modern day hip-hop artists.
“400 years later, it’s 2016 and time to let Shakespeare go.” These were the opening words of an hour-long debate I had with secondary school teacher “Tim” in a barbershop; the premise of the argument being that Shakespeare is irrelevant and needs to be replaced by modern and more relatable writers. It’s a sentiment we’re all familiar with – and one that I too have shared, given the context in which I was first introduced to the bard. Like most, my initial encounter with Shakespeare’s work was the shoving of a wrinkled, yellowing old book into my infant hands around the age of 10, coupled with the words: “Okay children, this term we’ll be reading Shakespeare!” Alas, the seed hath been sown. Shakespeare – one of the greatest playwrights and poets of all time – introduced to a child as an ancient, elite and unattainable novelist, with works to be read and not experienced. Everywhere you look within the realms of academia, he is represented as a symbol of what it means to be fundamentally British – well spoken, wealthy and from the upper echelons of society.
The problem with this is historical inaccuracy. William had humble beginnings, born to become the oldest surviving son of Mary and John Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon. His parents had not much social status and were most likely illiterate – as were an overwhelming majority of people during the 1600s. He didn’t study at the highest levels, nor did he write for any particular class. It’s one of the things that gave him such great and growing popularity. He had been exposed to all the depths and heights of society, and so could integrate stories his audiences would otherwise have no connection with. This is the sort of contextual bubble wrapping I needed around that tattered copy of A Midsummer Night’s Dream I held in my hands all those years ago.
Whilst I agree that modern writers should be given more of a spotlight in our education system, I am opposed to the idea that in turn, Shakespeare must be erased. His relevance is testament to the immortality of experience:
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee. (Sonnet 18)
So long as we have the capacity to feel power, greed, love, pain, anguish, etc, Shakespeare lives. What’s important is not the revival of the man himself, but that through his works we see the foundations of a universal truth. Heartbreak has always been heartbreak, war has always existed and greed has always been a catalyst for destruction. Break through the façade of fancy words and we find that his sentiment needs no contemporizing. One need only compare Macbeth’s struggle with internal conflict to the entirety of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly album. Both artists equally represent a social narrative and by questioning the relevance of a man who once gave service to his community as a scribe, we question the importance of documenting history. There is still an infinite amount of knowledge to be gained from that period of time in our history, and the fact that it was detailed in such an eternal art form means we still have access to it many centuries later.
Tim and I both left the barbershop with a greater understanding of the other. I imagined trying to tell a younger version of myself that I’d one day be debating with a secondary school teacher as an advocate for keeping Shakespeare in the classroom, but therein lies the beauty of words. Unchanging in themselves, but forever changing in their meaning to all who take them in.