“Once More Unto The Breach, Dear Friends”: Shakespeare’s Power To Create Equality

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The Past Catches Me

While going through my possessions and trying to decide what to take to grad school, I came across a pile of old ticket stubs and playbills. These priceless pieces of paper contain my memories from a short period of four weeks in 2009 when I was lucky enough to be studying theater in London. When I was there, everything seemed like a blur to me; taking classes, completing assignments all over the city, and going to one show after another. I lived it one moment at a time. If I understood the magnitude of my experiences then like I do now, I would have been overwhelmed.

Discoveries After Reflections

The playbills represent only one snapshot from my life, but what I realize now is that those four weeks – the productions that I saw – will always represent my piece of the London theater community. It is a piece of documented history that will always be my own. And yet it also belongs to so many other people – the other audience members, the actors, the theater spaces, the lines of dialogue, the costume designers, the set builders, and the city of London itself. I am part of their history and they are part of mine.

One of the things that I have truly come to love about theater and more specifically, Shakespeare, is that they are a powerful force for creating equality within a community. As I and many others have probably said before, Shakespeare’s plays endure because they are filled with universal human experiences. He tells stories that are beautiful in a sense that they are about what most everyone understands to be love, hurt, friendship, family, loss, vulnerability, and the joys to be had in simply living. Under the right conditions, an African woman who is a mother, and a white, male American CEO could go to see Romeo and Juliet.  They come from two very different places. However, the woman is moved because she’s a mother and the man is moved because Juliet might remind him of his wife.  For the span of 2-3 hours, the distances or breaches between both their life experiences don’t matter anymore because they are just two human beings enjoying Shakespeare. They might not have interpreted the story in the same way, but now they are equals in one respect: they have shared the experience of being moved by the same play.  Shakespeare emphasizes the fact that as humans we all have things in common and it is those universal emotions that can create equality.  Relational gaps or breaches made between us by differences in privilege, race, gender, and sexuality might be filled when suddenly we are moved at the same time by the same story.

I have found that one of Shakespeare’s plays in particular represents the idea that shared experiences can bind people together despite their differences.  The play is Henry V.  Henry has the challenge of uniting the men of England to a single cause which is winning back English lands from the French.  He must bring his men together and yet he also faces the questions: How can England be one united country when I am a privileged king standing above everyone else?  How can I be a leader amongst my men instead of a leader over them?  Henry V solves the problem as Shakespeare’s plays have done, by showing his followers that they have things in common.  First of all, that they are all human.  Second of all, that their shared experience of feeling passionate for their cause has made them all equal to the king.  Before battle Henry states, “For he today who sheds his blood with me shall be my brother (Shakespeare, Henry V 4.3.61-2).”  Despite the differences and breaches between us we are the same in the sense that we are all human and we all bleed.  Shakespeare creates complete equality amongst every man through the the fact that the history of England rests in all their hands.

I think the King is but a man, as I am. The violet smells to him as it doth to me; the element shows to him as it doth to me; all his senses have but human conditions. His ceremonies laid by, in his nakedness he appears but a man […] Therefore when he sees reason of fears, as we do, his fears, out of doubt, be of the same relish as ours are (Shakespeare, Henry V, 4.1.102-10).

A Perfect Theater Community

Perhaps the best example of how an (ideally) accessible theater community can create equality among people would be my own experiences in London. (Plus, there is a tiny bit of me that wants to brag.)  This is what I did.  I went to performances in the theater district.  I saw Judi Dench in Madame De Sade at the Donmar Warehouse – the same place where Jude Law would perform in Hamlet a day after I left, where Chiwetel Ejiofor, Ewan McGregor, and Tom Hiddleston performed Othello the year before, and where five years into the future Mark Gatiss and Tom Hiddleston would perform in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus.  I saw Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in a play called Waiting for Godot and James McAvoy in Three Days of Rain.  I went to the madly popular productions of Wicked and Les Miserables.  I saw Romeo and Juliet performed at Shakespeare’s Globe Theater. I also went to tiny community theaters on the outskirts of London where actors (possibly driven by nothing but their own passions) performed in upper levels of cafes and spaces small enough to seat less than 100 people.  The cafe had bragging rights to the fact that some of the above mentioned celebrities had eaten their food and attended their performances.  I went to shows at the National Theater on the Thames where War Horse (to become a blockbuster film 3 years later that would feature Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddleston) was performed.  I spent multiple evenings listening to free musical concerts in the lobby of the same theater.

In addition, there are some things that I found out (I admit to being somewhat of a stalker) that relate to my experiences.  I have talked about the documentary Muse of Fire in previous posts.  It is a film  about the universal nature of Shakespeare.  I have come to conclude that the documentary was being made at or around the same time that I spent in London.  The movie features interviews with Jude Law about his experiences in Hamlet – the production that I would miss seeing by a day or two.  In an interview, Alan Rickman talks about how wonderful the same production of Romeo and Juliet that I had seen was for him.  In other interviews not related to Muse of Fire, Tom Hiddleston has talked about seeing War Horse at the National Theater, possibly within the same time and within the same space where I experienced London theater and those fantastic free concerts in the lobby.

The point of telling you all this is to show that the London theater community is varied, concentrated within a geographic area, and incredibly accessible to everyone involved within it.  I am not a wealthy person.  I’m from small-town Indiana – farm country – and yet I was able to go to the same theaters, to the same shows to which Alan Rickman and Tom Hiddleston were going to.  Indeed, the fact that the musical performances were free (though not of the same quality of Les Miserables) meant that anyone off the street could come in and enjoy entertainment in the same space in which the rich and famous have.  At the same time, celebrity actors I was seeing on stage were going to small theater performances that would be the common fare in my tiny hometown.  It seems like a long shot even still, but in terms of the theater community, could I not say that during my four weeks in London, I was an equal to Alan Rickman, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Tom Hiddleston, Pattrick Stewart, and James McAvoy?  We have the shared human experiences of enjoying Romeo & Juliet, of sharing the same stories within the same spaces.  Are we not all humans feeling the same emotions together?  Has theater and Shakespeare been a force that has closed the breaches in gender, nationality, and social classes between us?

And its not just about me now because there were also tons of school children watching Romeo & Juliet at The Globe.  There were old people and young people.  People from different countries who knew different languages.  Now they are also all equals under the understanding that they have all experienced universal human emotions through the same Shakespearean play.

I wonder now if a community like this one exists anywhere else in the world.  Could it exist in the United States?  London seems to be a unique situation and still not completely an ideal one.  In order for a theater community to work perfectly in order to create equality, it would have to be even more accessible to everyone both financially and intellectually.  And it would have to be highly promoted to everyone.  The random person on the street would have to want to see Shakespeare just as much Kenneth Branagh would want to.

In Today’s World

In June 2015, nine African Americans died after being shot by a white male during a Bible study inside of their own church in Charleston, South Carolina.  This tragedy has led the U.S. to a current struggle over the question of whether or not the Confederate Flag should be removed from certain government facilities.  To many people the flag is a representation of racial segregation and slavery.  To many others it is a symbol of historical and cultural identity that should be valued in honor of the men who died during the Civil War.

In Shakespeare’s play Henry V, King Henry V’s goal was to bring his countrymen together as one united force.  The king had to make himself an equal to any man who stood beneath him in order to gain victory for his entire country.  His is a mission of true patriotism.  The king declared that every single one of his men where equals in all ways because they had the universal experience of fighting for their country.

The Hollow Crown: Henry V film, 2012.  Henry V by William Shakespeare (4.3.61-2)

The Hollow Crown: Henry V film, 2012. Henry V by William Shakespeare (4.3.61-2)

During the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln’s goal was to bring his countrymen together as a single united nation.

Henry V achieved this goal through valuing universal human experiences.

Today we are still divided by different perspectives of which no one wants to let go.  It is difficult to make progress in resolving a conflict when everyone is pushed apart by their differences and refuses to see commonalities between themselves and others.

Different races, cultures, religions, and perspectives all exist together in the United States.  That is one thing that makes living here so wonderful.  I can write what I want to on a blog and people have the right to disagree with what I say.  Everyone has equal right to be different.  But sometimes it is also beneficial to remember that we are all the same in other ways – we all live in the same country, have families and friends here, know what it is to love and hate each other.  It is these human similarities which the freedom and equality in our country sought to honor.  Our shared experiences should not be forgotten because they are what have allowed us beautiful differences.

I would hope that in the end, we can say that we are all humans.  No matter what we look like, what we believe in, and where we come from, we still all feel the same emotions and have the same organs.  Because if it is true, think about how important it would be to our world.  What could we gain from Shakespeare and theater in a world where countrymen kill each other over skin color and argue about the symbolism of a flag?