In 2012 I was given an inkling of what it may be when I attended the Shakespeare Olympics at London’s Globe Theatre. This cultural Olympics ran parallel with the London Olympic Games that year. It comprised continuously running presentations of every play by Shakespeare, performed by visiting theatre companies from all around the world; each speaking Shakespeare’s language in their own mother-tongue. At each performance there were audience members who shared the performers’ mother-tongue and who, indeed, were often drawn because of that shared language. But most of the play’s audience, like me, had no understanding of the language spoken on the stage and yet we were all caught up in the performance and held spell-bound by it. This experience, of 37 different performances, with only two in English, confirmed for me that the appeal of Shakespeare drama does not depend on understanding the spoken lines. It suggests, instead, that Shakespeare’s plays speak to us, through all our senses, in the metalanguage of the human soul.
The eminent Shakespearean actor and director Kenneth Branagh underlines this as he recalls seeing 'Romeo and Juliet' for the first time as a young teenager: "I remember being comfortable in not understanding all or even much of it, but being transfixed… this was about youthful love, sex, gangs, violence… In the hands of these actors, this incendiary engagement with very ancient language kept me leaning forward… and not being daunted by the way it stretched out way beyond, in terms of the mystery of it, to a place I would never get to. It’ll keep receding from me – but that’s partly what keeps me moving towards it." (2)
Branagh’s powerful description captures several elements of Shakespeare’s dynamic appeal; and it has something of the language of desire about it. There is "being comfortable" in not understanding the play and at the same time, "being transfixed" by it’s dramatic power. There is the actors’ "Incendiary engagement" with the spirit of language which keeps one "leaning forward", on the edge of one’s seat, kindling the desire to keep seeking the play’s 'ever receding mystery'. In this, he points to the three-fold nature of Shakespeare’s plays that combine powerful drama with great stories and with poetic gold.
Branagh also points to the vital fourth element contributing to the power of Shakespeare’s plays: the willing participation of the audience members. It is we, the audience, leaning forward to join our imaginative skill with that of the actors, who complete the play-experience. It is we, human beings, who are naturally disposed to complement and inwardly complete what is perceived as incomplete in the outer sense-perceptible world.
Every year, neuroscience adds more confirming material evidence to our ancient knowledge of this dynamically creative partnership between the work of art and its recipient. In literary art, the writer carefully choreographs the unfolding narrative to invite the readers along on a transformative journey through the text: experiencing how the characters are 'schooled by the pains of this world' (3), the readers widen the horizons of their own moral understanding and empathy by putting themselves in the characters’ shoes and walking around in them to the end of the story. Neuroscientists tell us that this effect is more physically rooted in our brain development than we have previously understood. (4)
In the theatre this transformative power of 'story' is increased exponentially, through the power of dramatic art. In the performance the audience is surrounded by and completely immersed in the protean play of sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touch of the theatrical experience. When this is successfully achieved we can 'suspend our disbelief' and become partners in a carefully choreographed dance with the unfolding drama. During Shakespeare’s play performances, where everything has been crafted for its effect on the audience, we can become aware of being caught up in a benign kind of communal enchantment where, for a while, we become more aware than we ever are in normal life of the full possibilities of human life, or simply of a joy that one has always known existed but where one could never have arrived by oneself. (5)
The power of Shakespeare’s plays lies, then, in his conscious knowledge and understanding of how to work with the alchemical potential in the human soul in the crafting of his plays. Each play offers a transformative education for the soul. This knowledge has its roots in the ancient origins of all drama and its mission in the world; and it is this same knowledge that can be harnessed in the education of the young person today. As Brien Masters writes about drama in Waldorf education: (6)
From waves pounding against rocky coast to cumuli billowing in majesty overhead; from the haze-blue vault of a summer afternoon to the fire of sunset; from the blinding of tempest to the calm of moonrise – such transformations form the natural back-drop of a theatre like the Cornish Minac (7) its auditorium hewn out of the cliff near Land’s End. Not that one expects the thunderclap to coincide with the stage direction every time!
But such a backdrop – whatever one’s view of open air theatre may be – can bring it home to us, on a scale of cosmic grandeur, what the very medium of the dramatic art is. Notwithstanding the vast workshops and wardrobes of every self-respecting theatre, it is nothing material, measurable, weighable; it is the element upon which the progress of the human soul is founded: the element of transformation.
A career in drama opens the possibility of taking part not merely in dramatic production, but also in the transformation the production may bring about in members of the audience, of taking part in the alchemy of the soul. As a race, for instance, we owe the birth of conscience partly to the midwife of Greek drama. Drama in Waldorf Education is fully engaged in this process of transformation. But the purpose of drama in this context is to bring about the change, not in the audience – though it may well be moved – but in the players themselves, the pupils. They enter the project, if you like, as caterpillars, they emerge from it as butterflies. And, at the expense of over-dramatizing the metaphor, the teacher radiates the sunlight which encourages the long and often arduous activity that every play must undergo while it is involved in its cocoon stage.
This archetypal picture of transformative process, which is encapsulated in the image of butterflies in all their beauty emerging from the cocoon, serves to express the joy of being involved in Shakespeare’s plays – whether as audience member or actor, as director or designer, as student or as scholar.
It is a picture that is at the heart of a new book on the esoteric in Shakespeare by Brien Masters and Josie Alwyn, called Educating the Soul, which is due to be launched on the occasion of the Shakespeare Festival at Rudolf Steiner House, London this April. The book is concerned with Shakespeare’s awareness of the acute need of the higher faculties of Imagination, Inspiration and Intuition to complement the advancing technology, the usurped political basis of the 'old world', the empirical acquisitiveness engulfing people’s lives, the materialism… .
As Brien Masters writes, Shakespeare’s awareness of this is easily gleaned from the language, the incidents, the substance, the structure and the world outlook that pervade his plays. Less easily gleaned, perhaps, is the remedy which is Shakespeare’s mission: through the plays to complement the changing focus of consciousness fast overtaking the minds of his contemporaries, by ensuring that the door that had been for long inexorably closing on the stages of Imagination, Inspiration and Intuitive perception would not slam jam-tight. (8)
Perhaps we have arrived at an answer to the question of Shakespeare’s lasting appeal; for he keeps the bridge of Imagination open for us to this very day to cross as we will, between visible and invisible realms. Perhaps, then, the answer is simply that Shakespeare’s plays offer the human soul a space in which to play (be it at war or love), and that through the festival of his work in 2016 we are celebrating, above all, the spirit of joy that never ceases its work for humankind.
Josie Alwyn lives in Lewes, England, and is co-director of the London Waldorf Teacher Training Seminar.
(1) Shakespeare Festival, 21st-24th April 2016, Rudolf Steiner House, London, presented by The Anthroposophical Society in Great Britain and The Humanities Section of the School of Spiritual Science. (quoted from brochure)
(2) The Guardian website, Stage: Kenneth Branagh live discussion on his new theatre company 2015. (www.theguardian.com/stage/2015/oct/09/kenneth-branagh-an-audience-of-100000-makes-for-a-different-feeling-in-the-tights).
(3) “Schooled by the pains of this world into being or becoming a soul” as spoken by Seamus Heaney (1939-2013), the Irish poet, speaking about the work of John Keats on a BBC Radio 4 programme.
(4) See, for example, Keith Oatley’s book, Such Stuff as Dreams, 2011.
(5) Drawing on Gabriel Josipovici ( commenting on Virginia Woolf), The Singer on the Shore, p.77 (2006)
(6) Child and Man, editorial, Summer 1982, vol.16, no.2.
(7) The Minack Theatre is an open-air theatre, situated at Porthcurno, in Cornwall, England. It is constructed above a gully with a rocky granite outcrop jutting into the sea (minack from Cornish meynek means a stony or rocky place). It was first used in the 1930’s as a theatre and has appeared in a listing of the world’s most spectacular theatres, having the Atlantic sea as its backdrop.
(8) Educating the Soul, on the Esoteric in Shakespeare; Alwyn and Masters; Temple Lodge, 2016. Introduction, p.3.
First published at New View www.newview.org.uk