Shakespeare died 400 years ago this year and really when we look at his body of plays, his work was utterly remarkable today and in its day.
One of my favourite plays by Shakespeare is “The Merchant of Venice” and with anti-semitism hitting the headlines for the Labour Party, whilst the refusal by Tory MPs to allow 3,000 Syrian refugees into the UK, is tucked away in the newsfolds of the media, I think it’s time for a revisit.
It stuck with me as a story as we studied it in middle school and I was struck at just 12 by the demonisation of Shylock. He’s a complex character in a play classed by scholars as “a problem play.”
If you don’t know the plot – here’s a potted summary (with apologies if I make errors in recall).
Antonio, the titular Merchant, needs money quickly for Bassanio who is pimping himself for marriage. Antonio’s ships are in a precarious state so he turns to Shylock, a Jewish money lender in Venice, despite vilifying him on previous occasions.
Shylock gives him 10,000 ducats with a strange stipulation. If unpaid within 90 days, the forfeit is a pound of Antonio’s flesh.
Needless to say, Antonio can’t pay and the case ends up in some Venetian court.
You probably know the outcome, but there’s something magical about the crafting of the plot, its denouement, its array of characters and the setting.
Shakespeare was a storyteller, sans pareil.
Stratford nor London afforded him access to Wikipedia or Instagram or Pinterest to curate ideas and imagery for his works.
It’s unlikely too that Shakespeare travelled to Italy for inspiration for “Romeo and Juliet”, or “The Merchant of Venice” but what he had was visionary imagination and an unparalleled ability to create drama.
The theatre in 1616 was the Netflix or Virgin Media or Sky Box Sets of 2016. Shakespeare needed theatre visitors to sustain his business of acting and writing. He relied on people physically attending, paying and coming back for more.
Today, Shakespeare would be seen as the ultimate content marketer, just as he was in the 16th and 17th centuries.
38 plays still being performed and studied globally show his impact then and now.
If you’ve never been to Venice, you should go – as a city it’s beguiling.
I took 40 students, who were studying the play, to Venice, staying in the Lido de Jesolo in 2002 and having guided tours of the city with reference to money-lending and landmarks and boat trips out to islands named in the play, Murano and Burano.
This wasn’t some excuse for a jolly myself (who would take 40 teenagers on a plane to relax?), it was to raise motivation, GCSE Literature grades by placing a text in its context, its real setting.
It worked too: record results that year in the department I led at the time.
Good content marketing, good writing has to be grounded in personal experience – that trip, based on a great literary play – proved that with the results it elicited for my students.
Happy days indeed.