Paul Edmondson is Head of Learning at The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, an Honorary Fellow of The Shakespeare Institute, and an Honorary Fellow of The Society for Teachers of Speech and Drama. His first degree is from the University of Durham. He did his post-graduate work at The Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham, and produced a critical edition of The London Prodigal (1605) for his Ph. D.
King Lear ends with the title character grieving for his daughter. In this audio excerpt, Paul Edmondson explains how Shakespeare uses direct language to get an eternal question: Why do the innocent suffer?
He has lectured on Shakespeare in France, Germany, Norway, Hungary, Rumania, and the United States. He is co-supervisory general editor of the New Penguin Shakespeare and has produced a new introduction to Richard II for the series. He is co-author (with Stanley Wells) of Shakespeare’s Sonnets for Oxford University Press (2004). His book on Twelfth Night was published in the Palgrave Shakespeare Handbooks series (2005).
PAUL EDMONDSON: I suppose for a young person’s reception of Shakespeare – I’m trying to think of my own and I think I’d want to say that my own imagination was carved out, was shaped, at a fairly early age by inventing stories of my own. As a child I – I said earlier that I really liked the theater – I acted a little bit. I had a puppet theater with my own stringed marionette puppets and would write plays for them. Nothing — nothing grand. And my parents would help me write the plays. But I was very aware of that being just a world which I was allowed to make my own with my own imagination. And my dear brother, I remember, offered to make me props for my theater. Then charged me money for them. And the next-door-neighbor painted me some scenery. And it was amazing to have proper scenery in this wooden toy theater. And so I used to do shows with these marionettes. So that was a first shaping of my imagination.
And then, I think, early on – I mean fairly, fairly young – I was introduced to the world of J. R. Tolkien. You know, the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. And this was the age of ten – at school. Our schoolteacher was brave enough and bold enough to read us The Hobbit, which took many weeks. The last thing of the school day we’d sit around and we’d listen to The Hobbit. And I was entranced by it. And I also – again, I saw it as a challenge. Somehow I wanted to make The Hobbit my own and I – after the second reading of it I went out and bought it from the local supermarket. And I read it within a week. And I had already finished The Lord of the Rings by the time she’d finished reading us The Hobbit at school.
INTRODUCING KIDS TO SHAKESPEARE
PAUL EDMONSON: I think if it’s your first Shakespeare play, you need a strong realization of the story. You need to be excited about what happens. And that will make you care about the individuals concerned – the characters who Shakespeare is depicting.
I think what my English teacher did at school, was she then added a layer to that by making us look closely at the language without expecting us to understand every single line. That was crucial. We read around the class and we discussed the meaning of the play as we went on, but she kept stopping us and talking to us about the kinds of impressions which such and such a speech made to us as we read it. And why those impressions struck us and why we had those impressions.
So, for example, Lady Macbeth’s invocation of the spirits, “Come, you spirits, that ted on mortal thoughts. Unsex me here and fill me from the crown, to the toe top full of direst cruelty. Come, thick night,” etc, etc. You know, she would look at in terms of what is Lady Macbeth actually saying and told us about the Renaissance view of spirits being all around us all the time. And that Lady Macbeth is consciously asking the evil spirits to come to her.
It is a very, very visual speech although it’s a soliloquy because she goes on to say that she wants night itself to stop up her circulation system, in a way. The passage to remorse, that she’s not going to respond as a human being usually responds to situations because night is somehow enveloping her. And filling her as a person. And then she asks for the murdering ministers — presumably the spirits of those who have been publicly executed for murder – to come to her – her woman’s breasts and take her woman’s milk from her.
THE POETRY OF SHAKESPEARE
PAUL EDMONDSON: I think one of the things I would like to make absolutely crystal clear about Shakespeare’s appeal for me is it is the sense in which he is a poet who happens to write plays. You know, his plays are poetry. Even when he’s writing prose, he’s writing poetic prose; it’s incredibly well-shaped. He sees the world poetically as well as theatrically. And combine the two – it’s why I suppose that Shakespeare’s plays – and I’ve just been having this thought recently, I mean very recently – it’s why I suppose Shakespeare’s plays – it’s why I suppose you can see Shakespeare’s plays growing into things which become more like poems as he goes through his career. By the time you hit Hamlet onwards, his plays are more and more like single poems in their own right. But then his earlier work, which are much more rhetorical – this is a very crude division, but I think it’s central to Shakespeare’s development as an artist – that he’s finding ways of bodying forth poetry all the time and in deeper and ever more compelling ways. By which I mean, he’s not just giving characters poetry to speak; he’s actually shaping his plays through careful word echoes through them or at crucial moments to make them have a shape like a poem that you progress through. He’s dividing the characters up to create great echoic effects in his drama, as you would expect in a poem.