Each year, through the generous support of the Lily St. John McKee Memorial Fund, Folger Shakespeare Library welcomes a cohort of high school juniors and seniors into the home of the world’s largest Shakespeare collection to work with leading scholars and artists, conduct original research in the Folger collection, and perform scenes from Shakespeare for a public audience. They represent a wide range of schools, cultures, and interests, and they form a community of learners that leaves a mark on this place. Over and over again, McKee Fellows say that their time with the Folger Shakespeare Library transforms them.
In the third post in this 2019 Lily McKee Fellow series, Caroline Coleman, a student at Yorktown High School in Virginia, shares her thoughts on the universality of Shakespeare’s ideas and the power of performing his words.
Shakespeare’s language is some of the richest and most intricate ever written in English. It is language as a deliberate art and a living, breathing act. There is not a word in Shakespeare’s body of work that lies idle; he appeals to every part of the human essence. He demystifies the human soul, appeals to the mind and heart, and pushes the newborn modern English language to its limits, demonstrating language at its most effective.
Even when his characters are at their most melodramatic, Shakespeare’s ideas are universal. Love, betrayal, grief, joy, and sorrow, are all emotions fundamental to the human experience, and Shakespeare, through his language, portrays them better than anyone. Performing his language is an act of introspection, as it often speaks back to you and teaches you about yourself. For instance, Henry IV Part 1, the play the Lily McKee Fellows examined this year, is a coming of age story disguised as a history. The tale of young Henry V grappling with his desires and the world’s expectations of him is very relatable to the modern teenager confronting their future. While performing a character from another era, one can often discover just how similar we are to the Elizabethans. The language also illuminates how Elizabethans viewed themselves, compared to how we view ourselves as individuals in the modern world. Shakespeare has much to say on the topic of the self, and his depictions of people and their emotions have taught me how to better understand myself and human nature.
Words have power, and no one’s words have power like Shakespeare’s. Performing these words gives you a window into this marvelous power, into the world of coy euphemism, majestic speeches, and declarations of love. While the average person isn’t delivering orations in the public square or composing soliloquies, our world is founded on communication, and Shakespeare is a master of rhetoric, the art of communication. His plays are effective: if he wants the audience to weep, they weep, if he wants the audience to laugh, they laugh. The actor’s job is to bridge the gap between the esoteric language and the modern audience. Part of what performing Shakespeare teaches you is how to interpret the work and incorporate that interpretation into a performance that imbues his words with the life and intent they deserve. Shakespeare’s plays are poetry applied to life, which opens up new doors for rhetoric not found in everyday conversation. Meter allows the poet to say what plain speech cannot, the heartbeat that moves the language. Iambic pentameter was not simply a framework for his words, but another tool for Shakespeare to communicate with. His plays serve as the greatest rhetoric textbook, in performing them we learn how to influence, evoke, and convince.
Shakespeare’s plays are painfully human even when filled with the strange, historical, and supernatural, and performing his language allows us to better comprehend ourselves, the people around us, and the very words we use to form our lives.