English in Action: The English-Speaking Union

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Shakespeare as “Political Theater” Et tu, ESU?

The English-Speaking Union National Shakespeare Competition and "Political Theater"
by Christopher Hodgkins

Now everybody wants into the act! Few people who follow the arts or just follow the news can have missed the controversy over the New York Public Theater's production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, which had its final performance in Central Park's Delacorte Theater on June 18. The performance is acted in contemporary costumes, and Caesar—wearing a flamboyant suit and an orange-blond coif much like President Donald Trump's—seems to be slain in the American and not the Roman Capitol, meeting an especially bloody end in Act 3 at the hands of very modern senatorial conspirators. In response, some of the President's supporters—and some who simply think that this interpretation disrespects the Presidency and incited a recent attempted massacre of Republican Congressmen—have spoken out against the show, interrupted the performance, or even stormed the stage. Perhaps the producers provoked more audience reaction than they bargained for! And some people think that Shakespeare is irrelevant or boring . . .

Whatever one thinks of this particular political use of Shakespeare, the English-Speaking Union of the United States has been getting high school students up on stage and "into the act" for thirty-five years in New York and across America with its annual National Shakespeare Competition. With initial rounds held in schools and theaters around the country, and its semi-finals and finals each Spring at Lincoln Center, the ESU's Shakespeare Competition gets young people up on their feet and deep into the characters, language, and emotions of Shakespeare's comedies, tragedies, histories, and sonnets. The Competition's goal? For young performers to speak the speech knowingly, feelingly, powerfully, and with an immediacy that makes Renaissance drama as hot as today's headlines.

However, the relevance that these student actors discover in these poems and plays runs far deeper than renditions with a partisan edge or ideological agenda. Instead, each year these youthful contestants reconfirm the old wisdom which makes Shakespeare truly dangerous to politicians: that is, how he generally complicates our sympathies, reveals complex and mixed motives in all kinds of characters, so that it's difficult entirely to sanctify or to demonize any one party or cause or person. Instead, Shakespeare invites us to face the villains in our own faction or bloc or demographic, and indeed the villain under our own wig! After all, Julius Caesar ends by reminding us that those who, however nobly, take the law into their own hands bring their own ruin, and lead Rome on straight route to chaos—or autocracy.

No doubt, it's tempting to recruit Shakespeare to our varied causes, much as we rush to apply the glamor and authority of history, or scripture, or science to the fashionable movement of the moment. But Shakespeare invites us to pause, to go deep, to commit the primal spiritual—and liberal—act of walking a mile or two in the shoes of our adversaries and enemies, foreign or domestic. So whether we long to see The Donald done in vicariously by a Brutus in Brooks Brothers, or perhaps to see Hillary run mad as a blood-stained Lady Macbeth to her henpecked MacBill, we can all appreciate the profound emotional, interpretive, and—yes—political intelligence shown by each year's 20,000 teen players in the ESU's national Shakespeare Competition. See this link for details.

Christopher Hodgkins is Professor of Renaissance Literature and Atlantic World Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He serves on the ESU Board of Directors and on the Consortium Executive Committee of the Folger Institute of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

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