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‘Hype’ around Shakespeare debated at the Cambridge Union

Last Friday (March 11), the Cambridge Union hosted a virtual debate on the motion ‘This House believes the hype around Shakespeare is Much Ado about Nothing’.

Oscar Wilde and George Orwell debate at the Cambridge Union on January 23, 2020
Oscar Wilde and George Orwell debate at the Cambridge Union on January 23, 2020

The debate was chaired by Freddie Fisk, Union president for Lent 2021. The debate was held on Zoom and live-streamed on the Union’s YouTube channel, free for all to attend.

The first speaker for the proposition was Professor Michael Dobson, director of the Shakespeare Institute, professor of Shakespeare Studies at the University of Birmingham, and an honorary governor of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

While not denying that Shakespeare deserves to be celebrated or publicised, he mocked England’s endless evocation of him as their "prime symptom, exemplar and spokesperson". He called the hype for Shakespeare put forth by the British State at best "inadequate" and at worst "pernicious" in that it misrepresents his work.

He thus called on the audience to join the proposition in scorning the compulsory nationalist discourse surrounding The Bard.

Responding to Dobson was Timothy West CBE. A film, stage and television actor, he was also a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company and has played Macbeth twice and King Lear four times.

In reference to Shakespeare’s work, West dissected the complicated father-son relationship in Henry IV, which he declared to be the greatest work of literature in all of the English language.

Speaking next for the proposition was Ben Crystal, an actor, author and producer. Crystal spoke of his journey from hate to love, relating that it was only through performing Shakespeare that he truly discovered him and found that for Shakespeare "nothing is in fact everything".

William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare

Providing an etymological analysis, Crystal suggested that "whilst the motion might sound negative, it is actually positive". In Elizabethan English, the word ‘nothing' was pronounced as ‘no-ting’ meaning either ‘eavesdropping’ or ‘noting down’, both of which one cannot deny Shakespeare’s works to be full of.

Second for the opposition was Dame Marina Warner CBE, professor of English and Creative Writing at Birkbeck, University of London and the president of the Royal Society of Literature.

From Isabella in Measure for Measure, Portia in Merchant of Venice and the witches in Macbeth, Dame Marina provided several examples of heroines whose powerful speech acts have influenced the English language.

Third for the proposition was Samuel Rubinstein, a second-year history student at Trinity College. He commented on the eccentricities of Eugene Schieffelin, who in the 19th century released 60 European starlings into New York’s Central Park, on the basis of a line from Henry IV.

Just as the (now 200 million) starlings dominate America – the analogy goes – so does Shakespeare dominate the curriculum, detracting attention from equally deserving contemporaries like Thomas Middleton and Sir Philip Sidney.

The Cambridge Union
The Cambridge Union

Opposing him was student speaker Lara Brown, first-year English student at Downing College. Relating Shakespeare’s relatively humble upbringing, attending a free grammar school, and not proceeding to university, she termed him "a rare example of meritocratic brilliance".

From introducing 1,700 words into the English language, to permanently intermingling tragedy and romance to become a common feature of modern narrative, Lara defended Ben Johnson’s characterisation of Shakespeare as a writer "not of an age, but for all time".

The final speaker for proposition was Paul Norris, an English graduate of Queen's College. He countered the motion by arguing that ‘hype’ is not a Shakespearean word. Deriving from the word ‘hyperbole’, ‘hype’ is contradictory to Shakespeare’s preference for balance and moderation.

Indeed, he continued, Hamlet’s declaration that "anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing" attests to this.

Closing the debate for the opposition was Professor Kiernan Ryan, an emeritus professor of English Literature at Murray Edwards College and a Fellow at the Shakespeare Institute.

Shakespeare’s greatness, Ryan argued, is that his plays are dramatised, structured, and worded in such a way that reveals the potential of all human beings to be treated as equals. Both Shylock’s famous "Hath not a Jew eyes" speech and Emilia’s assertion in Othello, "Let husbands know their wives have sense like them" evoke this.

"Potential equality is never a nebulous abstraction" in Shakespeare's works and so while the "cultural context of Shakespeare’s writing remains anchored in the 1500s", he said, concepts of enlightened rationale attest to why hype still deservingly surrounds him.

The result of the debate was 16 ayes, 63 noes, and 5 abstentions. The motion was thus not carried: This House does not believe that the hype around Shakespeare is Much Ado about Nothing.


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