I was writing an exam question the other day. After the students took the test I had a chance to talk to some of them about the implications of our source text; in this case the famous 'to be or not to be' soliloquy from Hamlet. I'd been tempted not to touch it because, let's face it, everyone knows it and the opening lines (if not the whole thing) are almost pure cliche.

However, I stuck with it. After the initial confusion of taking arms against a sea of troubles (very Canute like) the writing become a reflection of someone thoughtful and academic. The grumpy, passionate and possibly mad young man of the rest of the play is replaced by this questioning, reasoning individual. He doesn't even mention his mother of father, let alone his murderous uncle. This speech is a lovely snapshot of how an educated young man of the day might talk about life and his problems with existence.

Yet more riches uncovered in one fragment of one play first drafted 407 years ago. With the Shakespeare coursework and exams complete I'm starting to read '1599' by James Shapiro, which hopes to expand on the idea that Shakespeare was a writer for all times and look at how the man and his work is more grounded in his times. That, for example, being an 'individual' was only starting to mean what it means now, that marrying for love was a novelty.

I'm particularly drawn to these social histories because they put the lie to ideas of a golden age and remind us (if we want to be reminded) that our age is as bad, or good as any other.


fjl said…
Agreed. And well put. We've just written on a similar theme again!

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