Shakespeare’s Dead – A day of Shakespearean activities

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Shakespeare’s Dead – a day of Shakespearean activities – Alice Robinson

For a Bard Nerd like me, April 23rd any year is a pretty big deal; the day big man Shakespeare is supposed to have been born, and the day on which he definitely died. This year, however, is a particularly exciting time for us English Lit geeks; it’s exactly 400 years since Shakespeare’s death, and is therefore a chance for us all to have a massive celebration of the amazing work one man was able to achieve in his 53 years, and indeed how incredible it is that these works still resonate with so many people 400 years on.

It is no surprise, then, that our very own Bodleian wanted to get in on the action, with a day of Shakespeare celebrations at the relatively new Weston Library on Saturday, to accompany its exhibition, Shakespeare’s Dead, curated by Oxford academics Emma Smith and Simon Palfrey. Sadly there was no birthday cake for Bill, but in the hall of the Weston there were plenty of themed activities for Shakespeare fans and families to have a go at.

Learning to write with an actual quill was made especially entertaining by the kind woman in a Tudor costume running it, who kept calling us “fair maidens”, and lino cutting to make a poster of Shakespeare’s face proved a surprisingly relaxing way to spend a Saturday afternoon. For me, however, the ‘Sonnet Soundscape’ was easily the best and most original thing there; a deliberately quirky contraption, you could duck inside the booth and recite a sonnet or a speech into a microphone, before standing by the side and listening via headphones to what others had recorded before you. It was particularly interesting to hear the recordings of people who clearly did not have English as their first language and how this changed the way they said the words.

For anyone interested in Shakespeare or indeed studying the Bard, the exhibition is a gold mine. It’s totally free, curated by two of the top professors, and packed with information, it also all fits into just one room, meaning you can just pop in there for an hour or so and get a ton of useful material for future essays or simply for general enjoyment. Discussing the ways in which Shakespeare uses death in his plays, it looks at the ways actual people died in the late Elizabethan – early Jacobean era. The plague statistics are particularly shocking, as they increase dramatically from month to month, although Emma Smith makes an important point when she emphasises the dramatic and extraordinary nature of the 74 deaths that take place in Shakespeare’s plays; it’s not every day that a mother eats her own sons baked in a pie after all! (see Titus Andronicus for more disgusting deaths if you’re into that kind of thing).

In contrast to other Shakespeare 400 events being put on around the country, the activity day at the Bodleian was certainly more academically focused, lacking an element of performance that is central to Shakespearean drama. Whereas in London there was the Globe’s ‘Complete Walk’ with films of famous actors performing speeches from all 37 plays along the Southbank, or in Stratford-upon-Avon there was the brilliant ‘Shakespeare Live!’, the Bodleian did not make use of the dramatic potential associated with Shakespeare. Of course, Oxford doesn’t have the same link to the Bard as London or Stratford; and of course it’s impossible for such an academic hub as Oxford not to be reasonably intellectual about the whole thing. I would have loved to see the Bodleian getting OUDS members or even professional actors to perform speeches or sonnets? Since this was an event in combination with Creation Theatre, there was the potential to organise acting workshops, or at least costumes to dress up in. Shakespeare, as I think most people would agree, is all about the performance. Reading the words to yourself is simply not the same as watching actors perform them, and that’s something that should have been highlighted a bit more.

That being said, the activities were definitely informative and enjoyable – accessible to basically everyone, of any age, education or language, and the exhibition itself is incredibly interesting. There are also some great lectures coming up over the next month or so. I just think – and this is rich coming from an English literature student, I’m well aware, that performance is and always will be the key to appreciating Shakespeare’s greatness, and this element was left out of the celebrations a little too much for my liking.

Shakespeare’s Dead is at the Weston Library, Oxford until September 18 2016.