On Monday 4th February, 2013, we welcomed Shakespearean actor and author, Ben Crystal, on his return to Berkhamsted. Ben has visited us twice before and his talk to our Year 9 pupils never fails to disappoint. This year, we arranged for him to speak with our girls first and then our boys, which was fascinating as both audiences reacted quite differently to what they heard.
Ben began by simply reading Hamlet‘s speech where he meets his father’s ghost without much expression and then, suddenly, he demonstrated the power of acting out Shakespeare’s words as compared with reading them straight out of the book. He challenged his audience to think, for example, about the simple meaning of the word ‘Oh’! We found that by differing expressions of this word through the use of various contexts and emotions, such a simple exclamation can have so much significance in so many ways. This warmed up the audience and got them engaged!
Ben then asked his audience what they knew of William Shakespeare: the man, his life, the period in which he lived and his theatre. We established that the playwright was very much a man of his time, his writing was political and this was reflected in his plays, as well as his taking inspiration from his own experiences of life. We also understood that there is a quality about Shakespeare’s writing that transcends his own age and how we could relate to his work today. We thought about the typical theatre of his day, and considered how the Globe Theatre as it stands on the left bank of the river Thames today might be compared with the original. Ben explained who would have sat where in the theatre and what they would have seen of the play, where was the best place to be seen if you wanted to be, and were able to pay the top ticket price, and the fact that the actors would have walked about in the yard, the place in front of the stage where those with the cheapest tickets would stand. He also explained how the audience would have interacted directly with the actors, each performance would then by slightly different from the previous one. Each member of the audience would have a different relationship with the character on-stage and audiences were more emotionally engaged than perhaps they are today.
Ben then went on to talk with our students about Macbeth, the play they are studying this year. They quickly established the essence of the play: the Scottish Warrior returns from battle, meets three witches who tell him he will kill the King and he must tell his wife, they will become King and Queen, they go mad and then die! Again, we reflected how this was a play very much of its time – 80% of the audience would have been illiterate, many believed in witchcraft and the new King James I was a leader in the campaign to stop the European Witch Craze. He felt too many were dying (60,000-120,000 died from being accused of being a witch). This play was seen as a scary play with the three witches appearing in the first scene! It was topical and nightmarish. Ben reminded us that the subject, the killing of the King, was also a subject which filled the citizens with horror at the time, with the gunpowder plot against King James, political uncertainty led to much fear and confusion.
Finally we considered Shakespeare’s language. We thought about the fact that he made up more than 1,000 words, words that we still use and understand today, as well as how these words were used to convey their meaning. The children were able to discuss how his use of iambic pentameter reflects the pattern and rhythm of human speech. Ben explained that this set Shakespeare apart from other poets and writers of the time. By using very human-sounding poetry, Shakespeare explored what it is to be human. He asks us the question: What would we do in this situation/circumstance?
Ben concluded by telling us all about Original Pronunciation and about how the actors in Shakespeare’s times would have delivered their lines with a mixture of dialects and accents from all over the English-speaking world. He demonstrated this wonderfully by reciting one speech twice: firstly as we are more accustomed to hear it today using our modern Received Pronunciation and secondly using Original Pronunciation. Our students felt encouraged to compare the two and discuss how they felt about each.
All in all, we had a superb morning and I believe that all students thoroughly enjoyed themselves and left the halls feeling they now had a new perspective on an author they had previously thought of as tedious and difficult! We should like to express our thanks to Ben, a superb actor!