All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players
(As You Like It, Act 11 Scene V11)
An avid fan of all things Shakespeare, I went to see the RSC production of As You Like It recently in Stratford. I was gripped by the story and hoped that Orlando and Rosalind found the love they were searching for, and indeed they did. It was an uplifting performance by the central characters, Pippa Nixon as Rosalind and Alex Waldmann as Orlando. The production, directed by Maria Arbeg, and running until the 26th September, was often reminiscent of a Glastonbury of yesteryear. Camp fires burned and free love (and beer) were prevalent. I left the theatre totally overwhelmed by the feeling of love the central characters felt for each other, and the optimism of young love and opportunity of a life yet lived. Contrast that with my visit in June to see Hamlet. The story of treachery and treason became increasingly intense and the thought that there is a fine line between life and death was never so obvious as in the scene where, in the graveyard, Hamlet turns to Horatio and speaks of the court jester he knew as a child and utters those immortal words, “Alas poor Yorick, I knew him Horatio.” He speaks of a man that once entertained him who now was nothing more than a skull in his hand.
Shakespeare’s influence on psychology and literature
The stories I have witnessed unfold at the RSC over recent months have made me realise that Shakespeare, at a fundamental level, is a direct observer of human behaviour and this comes through strongly in all his work. He is a fabulous commentator about all that it is to exist on this earth. He explores the depths of the human condition, both conscious and unconscious, so much so that it has influenced the great and good ever since. Indeed Shakespeare’s work appears at the birth of modern psychology. Sigmund Freud himself directly observed Shakespeare in some of his work and the popularist view of Hamlet as created by Sir Lawrence Oliver in his 1948 film gave more than a nod to the Oedipus complex. In fact, if you look at Freud’s work, Shakespeare is littered throughout it. Freud called the Bard “the greatest of poets”. Even those that appear to dislike Shakespeare’s work are transfixed. There were notable intellectuals that did not feel great love for our national treasure. Leo Tolstoy was quoted as saying: “I remember the astonishment I felt when I first read Shakespeare. I expected to receive a powerful esthetic pleasure, but having read, one after the other, works regarded as his best: King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and Macbeth, not only did I feel no delight, but I felt an irresistible repulsion and tedium…”
However, despite Tolstoy clearly stating his dislike of Shakespeare’s work, he is quoted as saying “I hate these plays, but I can’t stop reading them!” Is this a case of Tolstoy protesting too much? After all, why did he insist on revisiting the plays time and again if he found no value in them? Was it to support his opinion that there was indeed no value in Shakespeare’s work, or, as I suspect, was he learning much about observable human life from the plays in all their tedium?
Shakespeare was a discursive writer looking at life in the complexity that he believed was required, drawing his characterisations from what he observed around him. Shakespeare often drew on his experiences of the people he knew in Stratford, indeed, it is rumoured that he fled to London when he had immortalised some of the local residents of this sleepy town in his works. Shakespeare even drew parallels, in his plays of the events which happened tragically to the previous occupants (the Cloptons) of New Place (the house he lived in until his death in 1616). Margaret Clopton was abandoned by her lover and threw herself into a well and drowned, just as Ophelia had drowned when she discovered Hamlet could not be hers. More tragedy struck when sadly Charlotte Clopton, during a highly infectious epidemic, appeared to die, and was immediately buried, however another Clopton died shortly after, seemingly of the same infection. They too were quickly buried for fear of the spread of the disease and the scandal that would be associated with these events (a family of good standing being associated with infectious diseases.) On arrival at the burial chamber they saw, to their horror, Charlotte Clopton in her grave-clothes, leaning against the wall. She wasn’t dead but sleeping when she was buried, however by now it was too late, she was dead; but in desperation and hunger she had bitten a piece from her own arm. This story of mistaken death was perhaps immortalised in Romeo and Juliet?
In Shakespeare’s plays there is angst and betrayal, misdirection, treachery and death (did you know that Shakespeare’s deaths are always gruesome and never straight forward – Brutus running onto his own sword in Julia Caesar, for example?) There is bravery and loyalty, there is fun, love and laughter, and there is madness, family rifts and reconciliation – I could go on. Shakespeare explores the human condition in all its sublime complexity, tackling issues that are as current today as they were 300 years ago. I recently read in a newspaper agony column, the dismay of a mother, whose son had chosen to marry his partner of 16 years (another man) and the rift that this had caused between the two families and the prejudicial behaviour of the mother who would not tolerate her son’s choices because, it would mean (in her eyes at least) no grandchildren for her, amongst other issues. Could this not come straight out of a Shakespearian play? A pair of star-cross’d lovers in fair Verona, or conversely the Daily Mail (my parent’s copy I assure you).
So what can we learn from Shakespeare that can help us today? The lesson here is that, put simply, for time immemorial, humans do not change. In my last blog, I talked about how our brains are hard wired, that we behave in certain ways that are almost pre-programmed and Shakespeare’s work helps to support this view, as I will illustrate. We repeat the mistakes of the past; why else do we continue to go to war? Not least because, although we hear others experiences of loss and depravation, we do not believe them. We are programmed to learn this for ourselves, to acquire knowledge for its own sake. It’s not until we are in the situation that we can truly understand the stories of others. Observing Shakespeare’s play, it is clear that we laugh at the comedies or cry at the tragedies because despite the language and often the grand royal settings, they reflect our lives, our motivations, our wants and desires. We are happy that it’s not happening to us, or we are laughing because we have been there, yet when we do find ourselves in these situations we repeat the mistakes of the past. Why is this?
Shakespeare and Personality
We have been trying to understand personality and what motivates people to behave in certain ways for centuries now. Hippocrates in 4000BC tried to understand behaviour using the Four Humours. Central to this theory is that the amount of fluid in your system will dictate your personality type. If you are phlegmatic you will be lazy and sluggish but loyal and reflective and if you are Choleric you will be a natural charismatic leader (perhaps Henry V “Once more unto the breach dear friends” Act III Scene 1), or even Julius Caesar before his fall from grace?) Carl Jung took this further, being influenced by literature such as Shakespeare; he crafted his theory of archetypes using Hippocrates philosophy. Unsurprisingly we are still using some of that work today to understand our personalities in the form of the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) where we at tasked to consider the innate and unconscious behaviours that come from a predisposition for a certain preference. Rosalind could be seen in Jungian terms as an extroverted intuitor, a free spirit who finds herself happiest when released from Dukes Fredrick’s court to be banished to the forest of arden. Rosalind’s preference for the Jungian feeling (heart based decision making) preference is also obvious in her distress at being rebuffed by Orlando, but why would he acquiesce? Rosalind is disguised as Ganymede, eluding masculine charm.
Social psychologist and University of Kentucky Psychology Professor Richard Smith loves Shakespeare and is quoted as saying: “Shakespeare was wonderful at illustrating exactly what social psychology is, the study of how the everyday behaviour of the individual is affected by the presence of others.”
I think that if Shakespeare were writing plays today they would still resonate. People’s behaviour and motives would not have changed a great deal. Shakespeare was and is the greatest commentator on human life and if he were here today perhaps he would ask Romeo and Juliet to undertake their courting through text messaging and Facebook rather than from balconies and behind closed doors: “But soft, what backlight through yonder text window breaks?” Would they have accidentally fallen in love, be separated by rivalry and bitterness and be destined never to marry? I am sure they would.
So it seems that all the world’s a stage – with changing sets, but the players stay the same, bewildered, yet unquestioningly acting out their roles..”
So what else can we learn from Shakespeare? Your thoughts would be welcome.
For more information about MBTI go to http://www.opp.com
To find the article on Professor Richard Smith go to: