Duncan Fewins works with the Royal Shakespeare Company to improve the quality of Shakespeare education in the UK. He is also a drama lecturer and programme manager at Stratford-upon-Avon College. Here, he speaks to About.com about overcoming your fear of Shakespeare.
About.com: What do you aim to achieve in your workshops at the Royal Shakespeare Company and in your lecturing career at Stratford-upon-Avon College?
Duncan Fewins: Obviously, these texts were written 400 years ago and can sometimes appear intimidating, so my main aim is to make them accessible and alive. I think that there’s still a stigma attached to classical texts: people are still in reverence of Shakespeare, and perhaps even a little afraid. But Shakespeare wrote for ordinary people; his plays were the newspapers and journals of the time, so they’re written for everybody. I think that they still have a voice and I want to show people that they’ve got nothing to be afraid of. If you speak the text aloud and move with it, Shakespeare’s writing suddenly stops being a dead literary text on the page and becomes a living thing.
About.com: Is this easy to achieve, or does it require training?
Duncan Fewins: I think it does require training and skill – and that sounds arrogant. But I think the problem has been that many Shakespeare teachers with very laudable aims don’t have the performance training. These are plays at the end of the day, so you need acting skills to bring the texts alive. I think that some students find Shakespeare difficult because many teachers don’t have the required practical skills. Shakespeare’s plays have become part of the literary cannon and become literary texts rather than performance texts.
About.com: From a performance perspective, what lies at the heart of Shakespeare’s writing?
Duncan Fewins: Shakespeare has the ability to frame the essence of human nature. If you listen to a character in a Shakespeare play and strip away the language we don’t use anymore, you’ll find the core essence of human nature and behavior. The feelings they express and the internal conflicts they have are the same feelings and conflicts that we have today. That’s the key: Shakespeare’s amazing lucidity when talking about human feeling and conflict.
About.com: Is this why Shakespeare’s work has proved to be so timeless?
Duncan Fewins: Yes, but I also think that he’s amazing at portraying human social order. The social, cultural, political and religious order of his time is still relevant today.
This is going to sound incredibly simple, but I also think that he’s an amazing storyteller. He finds basic and universal narratives which are translatable into any culture or language. Hence, King Lear is one of the most performed plays in Japan. These stories mean something across cultures.
Also, part of the key is that he was an actor writing for other actors. He knew what it was like to speak these words and perform them, so there’s a life about his writing.
Another really important factor is that Shakespeare wrote for all strata of society. Women, slaves, noblemen, workers – they all have a voice in his theater. Interestingly, his working characters are often given a sense of dignity which is unusual for the writers of this time. But again, Shakespeare knew his audience. He was writing for the Queen and the noblemen in the gods above, and for the common man in the pit below. Therefore, anybody picking up one of his plays today, regardless of which social stratum they’re from, will find something in there for them. I think that’s really important.
About.com: What would you say to those frightened by Shakespeare’s work?
Duncan Fewins: I would say get up, speak the text aloud and discover the enjoyment in the words. Because he was such an excellent writer, the sound of the words colliding with each other in your mouth can be an amazing experience. I think that as soon as you get up on your feet and begin to move around, express and articulate, a lot of that fear goes out the window. You can’t feel the meter or the rhythm of the language unless you’re moving around.