PRESIDENT: I now turn to the motion before the house, which is “This house believes that Kanye is more relevant than Shakespeare”, and look to Mr Matt Cook, Jesus College Secretary's Committee, to open the case for the proposition.
MATT COOK: “I am Shakespeare in the flesh”; Kanye West has redefined celebrity, has reshapen artistry and epitomises relevance like no other can. When we compare him to Shakespeare, we realise that nobody - not even the bard himself - can compete with Kanye West in terms of impact on and appropriateness to the now, circumstances and contemporary interest. For this must surely be how we have to define relevance; an individual’s impact on modern life, and how they affect our behaviour. Kanye West is vocal, he’s flagrant and he challenges our conception of what it means to listen and what it means to exist.
My approach will be threefold; I'll briefly outline Kanye's profound impact within the musical sphere, concluding his influence in rap is without parallel. I will then consider the implications of his language - how we have to square "“Wherefore art thou Romeo” with “One good girl is worth a thousand bitches” - realising that, despite what I'm sure the opposition will attempt to refute, Kanye's prose is both incredibly meaningful and highly relevant in a way that Shakespeare's clearly is not. Finally, I'll consider Kanye's West's important outside of music and literature, asserting that nobody and nothing could be more relevant than this highly, colourful, demanding and brilliant figure.
However, before I proceed in earnest, I have the great pleasure of introducing this evening's opposition. Dan Wilkinson is a real friend - ‘How many of us’ - a first- year PvE student at Oriel College, and chair of the consultative committee at the Oxford Union. Hailing from Stratford- Upon- Avon itself, I'm sure he will be able to channel his inner Shakespeare in his defence opposing the motion.
Next up we have Justin Hunte, an acclaimed hip- hop reviewer who formerly served as editor- in- chief of the pioneering site HipHopDX, and its host of the fantastic rap podcast ‘The Breakdown’. I massively recommend his video “I miss the old Kanye”, and I'm sure he will offer fantastic insight on how we are to gauge rap’s relevance tonight.
Next we have the brilliant poet, writer and spoken word artist Anthony Anaxagorou. The first young poet to win the London Mayor’s Poetry Slam with the engaging poem Anthropos in 2002, he has achieved considerable mainstream success and was recognised with the Groucho Maverick award in 2015. I'm confident that his thoughts on language and rhythm will massively enrich our discussion.
Finally, we're delighted to host professor Elizabeth Schafer joining us this evening from Royal Holloway, who has had distinguished success by her research into William Shakespeare. This has included considerations of how Shakespeare's work can be adapted for different landscapes and audiences, as well as detailed performance histories of The Twelfth Night and The Taming of the Shrew; it is brilliant to host such a well- placed expert. Mr President, it is a huge honour to host our opposition and they are most welcome.
Shakespeare is revered in part for his ability to shape and define prose and theatre in diverse fields, evoking a sharp array of emotions and passions; ranging from the light- hearted ecstasy of A Midsummer Night's Dream, to the restless anger of Hamlet. Yet not even Shakespeare comes close to the sheer range and variety exhibited by Kanye West, over the course of his spirally and amethyst musical career to date. There's a line on the deeply honest parable Saint Pablo when the Louis Vuitton Don declares “I can see a thousand years from now in real life / Skate on the paradigm and shift it when I feel like. ” Nothing could distill the essence of Kanye's career quite like Kanye. On the shamelessly comedic, skip- heavy iconic debut The College Dropout, Kanye challenged materialism - “It seems we're living the American dream / But the people highest up got the lowest self- esteem” - as well as reconciling rap with religion and evaluating education; all layered over the throbbing beats for which he made his name, and popularising soul samples before anyone had really considered them. Kanye’s least famous album 808s and Heartbreak was also his most important; purposeful, hyper- emotional and paving the way for the auto- tune enriched works of Drake and The Weeknd years before they wrote them.
Kanye has experimented in and challenged hip- hop, in the process branching beyond the genre and redirecting its course when he has felt like it. He described his last album The Life Of Pablo as a gospel piece; he is the only artist able to flip so effortlessly between such disparate styles, while maintaining such quality and his own distinctive sound why could eulogise Kanye's musical career for eight minutes - and I'd quite like to - but Kanye's spectacular talent within production is just one area in which we see his immense importance and relevance, and we can see that his subversiveness and creativity is far more relevant to us than that of William Shakespeare; who's writing, alongside being dated and often often morally questionable, requires a level of literary knowledge that Kanye's verses cut through.
Rap is the 21st century soliloquy, and Kanye's is as devastatingly personal as it gets. I have no doubt that our opposition tonight will emphasise the influence of Shakespeare upon our vernacular - the 1700 or so of his words in the lexicon - yet to focus on this is to mistake influence for relevance. Kanye is using these words - not to mention a notable and significant pool of his own impactful hip- hop dialect, stretching far beyond simply ‘Yeezus’ - to dismantle the status quo and to challenge conventional thought, in a way that Shakespeare’s both too outdated and too mainstream to do. This can be seen by considering the pair's views on faith. In an unusually overt religious sonnet, number 146, Shakespeare declares that: “So shalt thou feed on death that feeds on men / And death once dead, there's no more dying then” While Kanye discusses his faith on the enduring Jesus walks: “But if I talk about God my records won't get played. huh? / Well, if this take away from my spins / Which will probably take away from my ends / Then I’ll hope this will take away from my sins and bring the day that I'm dreaming about- “
MATT COOK: Shakespeare questions his own spiritual nature, discusses eternal life and addresses what we now see as traditional conserves within faith. He may well have been an early proponent of such thought; but retrospectively considering Shakespeare in 2017, it’s clear that this sonnet retains its tempo but has lost its teeth. An eloquent piece of literature; but inevitably - obviously - Shakespeare's sonnet has faded in the 400 years since sdfsdzhis death. Kanye’s verse goes much further, in a more understandable style; asking for forgiveness in light of his flaws; questioning capitalism's compatibility with Christianity; and admitting to his not knowing of what comes next. Oddly for a rapper so frequently derided as arrogant, it is when Kanye sheds the braggadocio that he so incisively questions what matters in the here and in the now; and he encapsulates relevance. The rhythm is infectious, the beat is pulsating, and the implications are immensely powerful. Rap is attuned to the modern ear, in a way that the Bard’s declarations could not and cannot ever be. This stretches beyond simply Kanye West; rap has picked up the baton within music of social progression, refuting parochialism and addressing the true issues that matter. Political disengagement, minority oppression, empowerment; no genre possesses the same raw authenticity - and fundamentally, meaning - in its lyrics. In a time of vapid valueless pop music, rap is our redeeming and relevant artful. Yet Kanye West's importance transcends both music and language; he redefines our celebrity culture by subverting what we expect of celebrities, and refusing to be subservient to the demand of producers, of the recording industry and fans. He is openly hostile, honest and always 100% Kanye, regardless of its effect on his popularity: “All y'all so worried about being likable but only a few are concerned about being great! ! ! ”
Was anybody's choice in the 2016 presidential election so widely scrutinised? Why does it matter that he didn't vote, but would have done so for Donald Trump? He's a social barometer; reflecting changing opinions, while also changing the landscape, what we're discussing and caring about. Does anybody entice the media with the same regularity yet casualness? Why does Kanye dominate our news feed, when we hear that he's so arrogant, out of touch and immature? The hallmark of the greatest artist is being larger- than- life. When Kanye isn't reminding America that their president doesn't care about black people, he's deciding who the rightful winner of musical awards is, or asking for 1 billion dollars from Mark Zuckerberg on Twitter. He claimed he was ”This generations closest thing to Einstein”; I don't think that's arrogant or ridiculous, I think that's obvious. He’s explicit, he's outspoken and utterly committed in everything he does and believes, and values individuality above all else. The flaws exposing Kanye West are those in ourselves and in our society; a kaleidoscopic riddle of a man, Kanye is a walking question mark, a playful invitation to consider and reconsider all you hold true. He epitomises relevance, challenging stagnation and always asking “What next? ” Nobody could be more relevant than Kanye West. Thank you very much.
DANIEL WILKINSON: before I respond to Matt Cook’s opening proposition speech, ladies and gentlemen, can I first offer my thanks to you, Mr President, for giving me this opportunity to speak on the opposition' side of the motion tonight; and of course more importantly, on behalf of everyone in the chamber, wish you a very happy 21st birthday yesterday.
DANIEL WILKINSON: This may be an odd opening section to an opposition speech, because I actually almost completely agree with everything that Matt said. Kanye is a genius, albeit a self- proclaimed one; he said himself “I am Picasso, I am Walt Disney, I'm Steve Jobs.” He didn't give himself the name Yeezus for nothing; but I'm not sure that just by being one of the greatest minds of the 21st century, that necessarily makes you more relevant than Shakespeare.
But why is Shakespeare so relevant? To me it seems obvious; that Shakespeare's main source of relevance is his legacy to the English language. Shakespeare single- handedly coined over 1,700 unique words to the English language - ‘Addiction, accommodation, amazement; blood-stain, baseless, (UNCLEAR); circumstantial, countless, cruel- hearted’, to name just a few.
DANIEL WILKINSON: But it isn’t only words that Shakespeare showed a penchant for creating. There are countless phrases in the English language also attributed to his name - ‘brevity is the soul of wit’, ‘bated breath’, ‘full circle’, ‘in a pickle’, ‘knock knock, who's there?’ It is no shortcoming to say that Shakespeare is the undisputed father of the English language.
But of course, it can be easily argued that Kanye is as avid a lexical mastermind Shakespeare ever was; for in my opinion, the greatest of Kanye's albums - contrary to mass belief - is Graduation. In the song ‘Can't Tell Me Nothing’, we get a hint of Kanye's revolutionary approach to word creation - ‘Don't ever fix your lips like collagen / To say something when you gon’ end up apolagen.’ Apolagen.
This classic case of Yeezian enjambement - whereby replacing apologising with apolagen - the verse flows off the page, and Kanye cements himself as a true lyrical inventor. Language is fluid ever- changing; but in terms of the volume and the sheer precedence of linguistic creation, Shakespeare is the undisputed father of English language. Kanye West doesn't even come a close second.
As the father of the English language, Shakespeare has helped create some of the 220,000 encompassing words domicile to the English lexicon. The French language on the other hand only has 100,000 words in its lexicon. Now, it's not that the limited French vocabulary isn't as impressive as English; more than their translation of weekend becoming ‘le weekend’, sandwich becoming ‘le sandwich’, and popcorn becoming ‘le popcorn’ seems a little bit characteristically lazy. It is therefore ridiculous to say that (UNCLEAR) [Kanye] is more relevant than Shakespeare. It is a validation of Shakespeare's contribution to the English language every time Kanye's rap plays, whether you call it rap all poetry. There is, however, one man that could be argued to be of greater relevance; [to Big Narstie] and I am honoured that he has joined us here tonight.
And with that, I think it is now time to introduce the speakers of the proposition. We have already heard from Matt Cook - like myself, a first- year (UNCLEAR) but from Jesus College. I am grateful to Matt, as if the whole of committee here the Oxford Union, for not only being the brains behind this debate but for being our ambassador of grime. You might not believe it based on Matt’s appearances, but Matt is our kind of own mini-Kanye West - immediately loud, uncontrollably brash, and a formidable charmer with the ladies - and I must say, when me and Matt rehearsed our speeches earlier today and Matt said “I only knew who Shakespeare was yesterday”, I think his proposition speech was quite good.
Following on from that, Ossian Ward, the head of content for the Lisson gallery. I actually completely agree with Mr Ward when he said that “Art is about our reaction, and interaction with it”; but when the art of the Lisson Gallery hosts such paintings as ‘Paintings On Paper’ exhibition, that displays a yellow rectangle with a black strip down the side, I'm not so sure that counts.
And like the British version of Mr Karpe, Mr Big Narstie is our very own homegrown artistic genius, rivalling Kanye and Jay- Z as one of the most prominent musicians of our age. He never fails to live up to his name; Big Narstie really is as big as they get. Mr President, these are your guests and they are most welcome.
I think on a motion like this, it is a paramount importance to get to grips with what's being discussed; and there really is only one way of doing that, and that's by looking at the text. If you bear with me, I'd like to compare Shakespeare's Sonnet 130 with a section of modern grime and rap.
Shakespeare’s pragmatic tribute to his common mistress is a subversion of the Petrarchan sonnet prevalent in Jacobean and Elizabethan England; there is no hyperbolic praise, no obsequious language, no extrapolations of the truth, just an honest representation of love and devotion. Shakespeare taps into the complexity of human love; even though your partner may not be the most beautiful absolutely, to you they absolutely are, and that is all that matters. Those inclined readers of poetry may have noticed, for example, the subtle repetitions of visual sensual imagery, to act as lucid portals the verse itself and enact the experience of the poet; but those on the proposition side may argue that this is just as important in modern art. For example, Stormzy: Shut Up. Now look here for the subtle repetition:
Now obviously I picked my examples very selectively, but I believe it serves a wider point. This debate is about relevance, it's about longevity; the ability for art to transcend time, impact people as potently as it did when it was first created, all the way to over 400 years after the artist’s death. Shakespeare recapitulates the very best of a cultural Renaissance; I'm not so sure that Kanye West does.
The argument that Shakespeare and the classics are somehow too elitist to be relevant, I must also disagree with. I grew up and still live in Statford-Upon-Avon, having spent all of my life so far surrounded by Shakespeare. Even as a teenager - going to the theatre and watching The Winter's Tale, for example - you don't need to understand every line, letter or illusion; that doesn't matter. What matters is the raw pain, the visceral emotion caused at the hands of corrupting jealousy. When Hermione suffers a miscarriage, often elected on stage, you don't have to be a Shakespearean scholar to understand the pain.
In Hamlet, the audience witnesses the psychological deterioration of the protagonist, after a heartbreaking scenario when your father has been killed by your uncle and then your mother has decided to marry him. Again, the intricacies from an emotive point of view don't matter; we've all experienced loss, family corrosion and grief. There is no one better at portraying this than Shakespeare; Marlowe, Middleton, (UNCLEAR) ‘Lily’ and Fletcher all aimed at the same direction, but Shakespeare is certainly the playwright par excellence. There are reasons these plays are still being performed and haven't been confined to the closet of history; it is because they connect, and hold a mirror up to our universal human experience. They show us something that we always knew that we knew, but yet never managed to realise that we knew it; jealousy is irrational, and serves no purpose other than destruction; forgiveness is an emotive equivalent of rebirth; and if you do kill your brother to marry his wife and become the King of Denmark, it’s probably not going to end too well.
I would like to admit that I think the current way of many of us experience Shakespeare - at least for the first time in our lives - is often boring and mundane; sitting in a classroom whilst going through line by line, decoding the verse - being programmed to answer an exam question on the text - whole-heartedly misses the point of Shakespeare, and in fact drama in general. Drama and art are to be experienced, not to be force- fed for the sake of an exam. When anyone goes and experiences Shakespeare, or any classical art with good merit, I am certain they will share this appreciation and genuinely be moved by what unfolds before them. Somehow I doubt in 400 years time, there will be an international celebration and reverence for Kanye or his contemporaries within modern art. Ladies and gentlemen, tonight I implore you to vote with common sense, with honesty, and with a sense of pride in one of the greatest figures in our shared history. It is clear that Shakespeare is more relevant than (UNCLEAR) [Kanye], and I implore you to vote on the opposition side of the motion. Thank you very much.
OSSIAN WARD: “George Bush doesn't care about black people. ” These are the most important words that Kanye West - aka Yeezy, aka Mr West, aka Pablo, aka the Louie Vuitton Don, depending on your preference - has ever said. On September 2nd 2006, during a telethon for Hurricane Katrina, he was presenting a segment with comedian Mike Myers, who stone- facededly read from the autocue: “With the breach of the three levees protecting New Orleans, the landscape of the city has changed dramatically, tragically and irreversibly. ” Next its Kanye's turn to speak, but he goes radically off script with lines such as, “I hate the way they portray us in the media. If you see a black family they're looting; if you see a white family it says they're looking for food” He goes on: “Red Cross is doing everything they can. We already realise a lot of people that could help are fighting another war right now - which is a coded thing about the Iraq war, obviously - and they've given permission to go down and shoot us. ” Mike Myers looks panicked at this point, trying to get back on track before Kanye West pipes up again: “George Bush doesn't care about black people. ” That's the equivalent of a mic drop; they cut the scene, switched to another person who also looks startled and a bit scared.
George W described that as “the lowest point of his presidency”, and indeed it was an outright attack, not just on him, but on an institutionally racist media and police force; both themes that have gone on to inform real grassroots movements ten years later, such as Black Lives Matter in the wake of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, and other tragic events. Don't get me started on Pepsi either!
While some people said that Kanye's statement - I don't know how they could say this - was mere publicity for his second album, and it certainly wasn't his most erudite turn of phrase; at least of all the top 10 most outrageous things Kanye West has said, it beats his gate- crashing awards, posing as Jesus, saying he’s Shakespeare incarnate, but it was heartfelt. You could tell because he was nervous as hell.
This is a thread I'd like to tease out; of honesty and positivity, rather than just his ability to court and control the media agenda. This is what elevates Kanye's influence and message beyond other figures in the public eye; and beyond even old Willie Shakespeare, aka The Bard, aka the Upstart Crow, aka the Sweet Swan of Avon (a bit like my honourable opponent).
So first, let me say why I'm here; mainly because I believe hip- hop to be the lingua franca of [the] 20th and 21st century, and a force for current relevance and inspiration, beyond even the great works of literature. Hip hop artists and rappers are the inheritors of West African griots; of civil rights activists; tribal poets; of all historians, town criers and classical storytellers. These MCs - or Masters of Ceremonies - were born of resistance to oppression, and were liberators of the spoken politicised word; keepers of the flame of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Maya Angelou, Gil Scott- Heron and the last poets.
OSSIAN WARD: Cheers. It's no coincidence that Kanye's father was a Black Panther, and that he grew up amid the consciousness of 1980s hip- hop as I did; which ranged from the black power sentiments of X Clan and Public Enemy, to the afro- centrism of Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and Brand Nubian. Being neither afro- centric or black myself, I nevertheless grew up in this positive reading of the culture. Of course, out of the more extreme edges of socially conscious hip- hop came militant and revolution rap in the 1990s; followed by gangsta rap in the form of NWA, Ice- T, Kool G Rap, with all the attendant violence and misogyny that hip- hop is now routinely lambasted for, but which I would argue Kanye West is the antitode to - and yes, our Saviour - from.
Kanye is single- handedly responsible for bringing consciousness and universal relevance back to hip- hop; for making positivity, honesty and political statements into mainstream music once again, or perhaps on this scale, for the first time, not as a niche or outmoded concept. In turn this has brought about a sea change in hip- hop, with the rise of lyrical content in rappers led by Kendrick Lamar; in sheer popularity terms, through someone like Drake; and in mainstream musical acceptance, through Jay- Z and Kanye himself. Now of course, there is still a darker side to hip- hop; but I would like to argue that Shakespeare is himself to blame for the ills of Gangsta Rap. The latest incarnation of Gangsta Rap, as you may or may not know, is trap music; which in current parlance, refers to the selling of drugs - the trapping - and there is indeed a whole alternate language of slang around hip hop, from the “bando” - the abandoned house where the drugs are sold - to the scrilla, the steeze, cray, noided and so on. Kanye might call this speaking Swaghili.
Shakespeare started this stretching of the English language, inventing his own words which would form the backbone of gangsta rap like ‘swagger’. He invented the words such as ‘addiction, assassination, arch- villain, cold- blooded, scuffle, half- blooded’; not to mention ‘murder most foul’. Among other Shakespearean additions to the English language - as I mentioned, half- blooded - if we're talking current relevance, he would rate himself as something of a racist and misogynistic writer; from his depiction of Jews in Shylock's character, to his Othello, The Moor of Venice. Shakespeare's least relevant and perhaps most misogynistic play is The Taming Of The Shrew, which is essentially the tale of a lippy woman getting her just desserts, for not conforming to her husband’s every bidding. She's not even allowed to eat or sleep until she does, hence this passage: “Such duty as the subject owes the prince,/Even such a woman oweth to her husband; /And when she is forward, peevish, sullen, sour,/And not obedient to his honest will,/What is she but a foul contending rebel? ” Let us not forget that this is the writer who's Collected Works contain no less than two mentions of the word ‘bitch’, seven mentions of ‘booty’ - which wouldn't go down well with Mrs. West, aka Kim Kardashian - 116 murders and 135 mentions of ho, although the etymology is slightly different. Also, how relevant can Shakespeare be when he once once mentions Facebook in Macbeth: “Your face, my thane, is a book where men will read strange matters? ” And worse than that, no mentions of Twitter or tweets - Kanye has 27 million followers - and sacrilegiously, there is only one paltry mention of Kanye himself in Henry the Fourth: “Give me my fan; what, minion! [Kanye] not? ”
You may hear the argument tonight that Shakespeare would himself be a rapper or a slam poet, were he around today - introducing cadence, iambic pentameter to the kids - but no; he would be a tax- dodging property mogul or an estate agent, given how many homes he owned in South- East London. Anyway, what do we really know about Shakespeare in his Lost Years? Kanye we know everything about - he crosses boundaries into art, music, fashion - and who could be more relevant for our age of celebrity culture, than someone so obsessed and so egotistical that after all, it wasn't so long ago that Time Magazine made ‘You’ the person of the year? Kanye is of course on their most 100 Important list; but let's face it, people spend more time contemplating themselves and their social media accounts than they do the classics. Not to diss Shakespeare further, but how relevant does he feel to the millions of school kids who are forced to study him on their curriculum? Schools and especially theatres are desperate to update him and make him seem relevant, with their endless revivals and modern- day re- imaginings; numerous Nazi versions of Richard the Third, Wild West stagings, Caribbean Island, post- nuclear Titus Andronicus, need I go on.
But why Kanye and not Kendrick or Jay- Z, or someone else? Apart from the sheer media blanket coverage and his unassailable ego, it's his consistent output over the years and his consistency in bringing new genres of music into his oeuvre. He may not touch Shakespeare in terms of volume of writing just yet, but we don't need those infinite monkeys to recreate the works of Shakespeare; we now have artificial bots that can reproduce his works, just as Kanye is himself the subject of a new artificial intelligence program to create a rapping robot. Never mind the talk, Kanye's talent is prodigious; so I would like to end with the words of the man himself from New Slaves: “My momma was raised in an era when / Clean water was only served to the fairer skin / Doing clothes, you would have thought I had help / But they wasn't satisfied unless I picked the cotton myself / I know that we the new slaves, I see the blood on the leaves / They throwing hate at me, want me to stay at ease / F. U. and your corporation, y'all can't control me. ”
That has nothing to do with what I'm about to talk about for the next ten minutes. That's my favourite line from Andre 3000, the real greatest rapper of all time; so even Kanye West has something to aspire to in his greatness. Hip- hop was different before Kanye West released his monumental debut album The College Dropout in 2004. Rap’s glorious diversity has been swallowed and repackaged as a monolithic behemoth, representing little more than excess and bullet wounds and oversized white t- shirts; at least that's how it looked on radio and television - my opposition seems to believe everything is wrong with gangsta rap; I vehemently disagree - so when the dauntless College Dropout showed up rocking a blazer and a backpack, and made countless hits rhyming about common man experiences - for millions unaware of internet options - hip hop was all- inclusive again. He represented a vast sea- change in what was necessary to be a world- renowned MC. Humanity loves a ‘rise against all odds’ narrative, and Yeezy delivered like Amazon Prime. Early Kanye West was a person, he wasn't a caricature; he was visibly flawed, truly original; arguably overconfident, not one to mimic his contemporaries. He never portrayed himself as invulnerable or bulletproof, like other superstars of that era; there was a radiance attached to his relatability. He wasn't gloomy by any means; even when tackling addiction or decidedly uncool themes like self- consciousness, he was uplifting. He made a song about being a champion; he'd write an ode about falling in love with his hometown of Chicago, where he moved when he was three years old. It wasn't his birthplace, most people don't know that; he's actually born in Atlanta. He was the second rapper I ever directly related to; he worked at the GAP, I worked at the GAP. Kanye's mum was a teacher, just like mines and millions of others. His father wasn't MIA, neither was mine; just like millions of others. He was the kid who didn't always have Air Jordans, but he wasn't the kid who never had Air Jordans dealer; just like me and millions of others. His music reached mass exposure because it viscerally appealed to the masses; we felt him, and in that sense, the rapper with the Louis Vuitton luggage began as the People's Champ. So when we see him debuting his Yeezy season 3 at Madison Square Garden, we see his passion. He's one of the most fashionable, marketable artists in music and apparel. There remains an ingrained excitement around each new release, regardless of medium.
To this day, Kanye West never seems jaded; he'll rant about seemingly anything, he'll scuffle with TMZ reporters for seemingly no rhyme nor reason, and we all watch in amazement. Everything always seems to matter too much to Mr West; he never seems discontent. Accuse him of being arrogant, label him a douchebag - both brands may be fitting - does he tend to make an ass of himself? Absolutely. Do you find yourself on the verge of puking every time you see his name trending? It's been said before; but arguably no other artist of this millennium has consistently bent the zeitgeist to his will. He's like Neo in The Matrix in that regard; he's flow for gossip columnist, a fixture of popular culture, packing unreal levels of savagery and shamelessness; swagger on a hundred, thousand, trillion. Alas, we all live in our pop cultural ivory towers; a selfie generation revealing in our selfie sensibilities. We see little to no relevance in the Snap we just sent 17 seconds ago, let alone the work a literary titan blessed us with over four centuries ago. I get it; I assume all this is at least part of the reason why the house is entertaining this concept, that Kanye West is more relevant than Shakespeare.
All kinds of words have been dedicated to say all kinds of things about Mr Kanye West; I just used 37 different words and phrases created by William shake my opening segment here, and as the good gentlemen Big Narstie might say, “Most people, they don't know! ” I don't know if you guys heard that song, I love that one. BDL, come to America!
JUSTIN HUNTE: But here’s was interesting; can we play that game in reverse? How many Kayne- isms can we use to describe Shakespeare. Cray; cray works, I'll give you cray. Billions of people lean on Shakespearean language every single day to this day, and that's the beauty of the Bard; his work surrounds us all the time, it's like oxygen. Let's do the math, let's break it down; Shakespeare, 37 plays, 154 sonnets, 4 poems, incredibly prolific; we've mentioned he’s credited with over 1600 words and phrases. One in ten common phrases come from the work of the Bard; Shakespeare remains America's most wildly produced playwright - performed in theatres, on film, in schools and festivals - and read in millions of homes across the country, and that's in America; that's according to the National Endowment of the Art. According to britishcouncil. org, Shakespeare has been translated into over 100 languages; including Klingon, which is really, really weird. It's awesome, but it's really, really weird. The planet Uranus has 27 moons, 25 of which are named after Shakespearean characters; so I guess Klingon kind of makes sense, Shakespeare went interplanetary. This is one my favourites; there’s been at least 23 different TED Talks dedicated to Shakespeare's life, his times, his works. My favourite was called TEDx San Quentin; San Quentin is a federal prison in San Francisco, California. The Marin Shakespeare Company has offered weekly Shakespeare classes at San Quentin for the past 14 years; just about as long as Kanye West’s entire solo career. Through the Bard, the inmates learn to connect to timeless themes of his plays on their own lives. The stories inspired by Hamlet touch on revenge, suicide, forgiveness, murder, abandonment by mothers and conscience, among other themes. They're moving testaments to the power of Shakespeare’s inspiration; here's what Nat Collins - he’s an inmate at San Quentin - he said he joined the Shakespeare Company “Many years ago, for many reasons; however, I never thought that this class would teach me how to be vulnerable, connect me with my feelings and deep emotions. Character development is important to acting and adulthood; so as I continue to develop as an actor and as a person of integrity, accountability and responsibility - traits that will be around long after the show's over - through Shakespeare I find healing. ” Kanye West more relevant than Shakespeare? Tell that to the inmates at San Quentin.
President Trump had a Shakespearean moment this week; he did an interview on Face the Nation, he was questioned about his claims that the Obama administration wiretapped him. CBS's John Dickerson asked if he stands by calling Obama “A bad and sick guy”; Trump said “I stand by nothing”. That might as well be a scene from The Tempest: oh brave new world, with such people in it.
Gloucester got it correct; we're now “in the winter of our discontent”, still. The Great Recession was 10 years ago; we're marching for Trump, we're marching against Trump. We're marching for Black Lives Matter; we're marching for women; we're marching for science; we're marching for the housing crisis. We've been marching for a decade; we're still in ‘the winter of our discontent’. Shakespeare wrote that 400 years ago.
There's been a lot to talk about with Kanye West; we talk about how he used to stand up for things like, “George Bush doesn't care about black people. ” You could take Yeezus one way, and it sounds like he's fighting the system. You take it the other way, it's a rich guy railing about fashion. Do we need another rich guy railing about fashion? We can listen to Pablo and we can think about- [Applause]
You take The Life Of Pablo- I’d love to think of the Life of Pablo as Kanye West Returns, but if you listen to that album, it sounds like Kanye West Really Trying To Find Kanye West. It even has a song called “I miss the old Kanye West”; I thought he was talking to us, now I think he's talking to himself.
Point is this; Kanye West is one of the most important artists of our generation. He should stand up for the principles that we care about most in life; but ever since he teamed up with Jay- Z and told us all to Watch The Throne, while millions of people across the world lost their homes, he's been out of touch himself. So when I look around and I think about this conversation - as absurd as it is, let's entertain this - Kanye West, if anything, is like the Internet. His influence is as widespread as the World Wide Web; he's as broad as broadband. Shakespeare is like oxygen. There's no way the Internet is more relevant than oxygen; there is no way Kanye West's more relevant than Shakespeare. I think the real question is, is Kanye West as relevant as Kanye West used to be? Thank you.
JENSEN KARP: First, I'd like to say I'm absolutely honoured to be here speaking at the Oxford Union group - with such great debaters tonight, and obviously an impressive list of past participants - but I'm slightly different than anyone else you'll hear tonight, or anyone who's ever spoken in this very spot. That's because I'm here to speak about someone who owes me $300.
People say that all the time about artists - they say “Ricky Gervais owes me $15, because he keeps doing that TV show where he plays a Down's Syndrome kid for no reason” - but in this case I actually mean it. He owes me $300, because in the year 2000 I paid for a car service for Kanye West from Manhattan to New Jersey, on a night we recorded a song together. He needed to get home past midnight, and he had just produced the track I rapped on; despite the fact that I look like a very cool rabbi you might be shooting hoops with some kids outside of a progressive Jewish high school. I'm actually a monster MC; all trains were down, and knowing that we had little to no money in his account - and that being before he had released even one song - I was signed to Interscope records at the time, so I decided to pick up the bill. He would repeatedly remind me of this money he owed me over and over, to the point where he actually made me care about that $300. At first I was like, ‘whatever, not a big deal’; but like how Russell Brand kept bothering us until we gave in and made him famous, I finally wore down and started to care.
But once he started to release his own tracks, we no longer spoke; and he diverted his attention from outstanding debts with me to focus on things like bullying Taylor Swift, or producing a clothing line that looks like the Wardrobe for an off- Broadway hip- hop retelling of Les Mis. And you'd assume I was bitter or angry or holding a grudge, but I'm not. I consider this man to be an outright musical genius; because the one thing I can't deny - no matter how much money he owes me - is that Kanye West is more relevant than William Shakespeare. I understand this proposition may have sounded comical to you guys at first; here at Oxford desecrating the beloved name of Shakespeare, an inspiration for such cultural tentpoles at the 1999 Julia Stiles film 10 Things I Hate About You; or the 2006 Amanda Bynes teen knee- slapper She's The Man. How dare I, how dare I shit on those books in this room? But I continue.
JENSEN KARP: Great; we're good, we're moving on. Here's another now; ‘I’m not saying she's a gold digger, but she ain't messing with- ‘ You know what, don't finish that one. I wrote that before I saw the room; I've seen more people of colour at a Coldplay concert.
Okay, let's try these next ones; we're going to go two more, real quick. “Oh mistress mine, where are you roaming / Oh stay and hear your...” I'll wait all night; you’ve got a short speech, right? We'll wait; no one got it? Okay, that's fine; this is “true- love's coming. ”
Listen, none of you knew the lyrics of Shakespeare except for this dude, and he only knew one of them; and yes, you can know ‘to be or not to be’ and maybe some of Hamlet's soliloquy, but can either of those bang in the club? No; they don't even rhyme, necessarily. But Kanye knows what makes you relevant in modern day art, and that's what we're talking about; relevancy. Last year during a tirade directed towards New York radio personality Sway, he said this “I am Warhol, I am the number one most impactful artist of our generation. I am Shakespeare in the flesh”; go ahead and laugh, but this is something Kanye truly believes, despite the fact that I think he was on drugs at 7:00 a. m. when he said it.
Now, if we only had a direct quote from Shakespeare that addressed how he felt about Kanye, ’cause we do; from his complete works, here's a quote that leaves little to no imagination about what his reaction would be towards Kanye talking tall: “Who knows himself a braggart, let him fear this, for it will come to pass that every braggart shall be found an ass. ” And with that in mind, to Shakespeare I say; stop being such a fucking hater!
If you don't believe in yourself, who's going to believe in you? Kanye is an inspirational figure for a do- it- yourself generation, who now offers more opportunity than any era before it. Even just the relevance of his confidence speaks volumes over William Shakespeare's judgmental bum- outs. In 2017, are you going to tell your kid to get in line, or convince him or her that anything is possible with the internet?
Which brings me to another point; Kanye West knows branding, and in 2017 branding is just as important, if not more vital to your relevancy and success, than the actual art itself. How else would you explain why Adam Sandler and Netflix keep making movies together, or the Chainsmokers, or David Beckham's kid having a pop song? Is it good? Who cares. Does it have a Snapchat filter? Great, I'm in. For example, have you ever bought a Shakespeare book and then sold it for more money than you paid? No, actually as students, you know that at the end of the semester, you sell back your books for a small percentage of its original price. Now, these shoes I'm wearing today - everyone take a look - these shoes I'm wearing today, I paid $600 for. An Asian teenager I found online came to my house and sold them to me; he had originally paid $150 for them - creating a $450 profit in just days - all just because Kanye put his name on them. They are the Yeezy Oreo boosts; quite a far cry from your depreciating book of non- rhyming, non club- naming Shakespeare prose. Do I regret buying these ugly shoes as a 37 year- old white man, just to prove a point? Absolutely, I absolutely regret it. They look like I have webbed feet; these look like I'm nervous to catch Hep C in a public shower; these make me look like I’m an undercover policeman walking into a high school asking, “Which one of you guys want to smoke marijuana with me”, but that doesn't matter. Does Shakespeare have shoes? No, I asked the Asian teenager. Listen, on the subject of branding- thank you.
JENSEN KARP: Sure; well, listen, we're all building. And on the subject of branding, Kanye West knew exactly what he was doing when he married Kim Kardashian; he was creating an almost Camelot- esque power couple, deliberately picking someone who could both escalate his status and at the same time show no actual talent. No threat to him; just pure beauty. Shakespeare, on the other hand, at 18 years old married Anne Hathaway; and no, not the actress, just some 24 year- old rando he got pregnant. That's not branding, that's a mistake; and if you don't count 808s and Heartbreaks, Kanye West has never made a mistake. (AT GROANS) All right, big fans here, I get it up.
Kanye on his last tour sold t- shirts for $60 and kept the t- shirt’s original tag in them, exposing to every buyer that his graphics were printed on $2 blanks. That means he's making around fifty five dollars per shirt after screen printing, and no one's complaining. Actually, people are leaving with garbage bags filled with merch, that turned three to four times profit to middle- aged idiots like myself on the secondary market. $90 sweatpants sold out, $150 hoodies gone. He's built an empire since his late twenties; - Shakespeare wasn't even starting till his forties - and before you claim that Kanye's true writing talent comes from collaborators, remember that Shakespeare himself co- authored many of his works, with rumours that sometimes he had ghostwriters on every dramatic play he’s ever quote- unquote ‘penned’. Names like Marlowe, Edward de Vere, Bacon; these float around as the true authors of many of his plays. Sure, Kanye has Drake, Pusha T, Bon Iver, Kid Cudi and others, but at least he credits them. Part of his genius branding - as when he told the Dave Chappelle, intimately - “My life is dope and I do dope shit. ”
Listen, I wish I was up here talking about how Dave Eggers or Toni Morrison or Colson Whitehead were the most relevant voices being heard in 2017. That's my goal; I don't want to fly to London to defend a guy who can't have the decency to give me 300 bucks back, I don't want that; I want humbleness and scholarship to be forefront. I know the man's ridiculous, but any of you who doubt my debate thesis are not only ignoring just the truth, but culture as a whole. Kanye once said - and this is a quote - “Sometimes people write novels and they're just so wordy. I'm not a fan of books; I would never want a book’s autograph. I'm a proud non- reader of books. ” Laughs go ahead, please, but this is the most 2017 you can say. He's right; kids aren't reading books, they're proud non- readers too. This is a Facebook generation, in need of likes, retweets, snaps, validation, and a reason to believe they're the greatest; and you can't tell me that there is a better representation of that bullshit attitude than Kanye West. He's not only shaping music and culture; he's shaping behaviour, no matter how much we want to deny it. Despite being almost (UNCLEAR) [forty] years old, that man is the face of the common millennial; and in closing, he defines both the genius and the uncontrollably frustrating. He represents a time period where Uber both redefines the idea of public transportation, but also under- pays their drivers and apparently hates Muslims. He's Woody Allen directing Annie Hall in the 70s, but outing himself as a garbage person in the aughts when he married his stepdaughter. He's R Kelly, Bill Cosby, Nike, your iPhone, Michael Jackson, gluten ,the NFL, Cee Lo Green, Roman Polanski. He's the fact that Walt Disney was a Nazi. He's the most glaring example of what we've had as an undeniable, all- time relevant artist, no matter how much we want to kill the messenger.
We’ve watched Kanye develop from the days of being a producer who can't afford a car service, to one of the first examples of televised outrage at a sitting president for racial bias. We've watched him lose his mother, yet gain two children; he's constructed some of the most influential songs of all time while also ruining an award show. Shakespeare wrote about dynamic, thriving characters, and tragedy and duality; Kanye West is one. He is the lying - sorry he is the yin to your yang, and at times I think those who hate Kanye actually hate themselves. How can we be loving creatures, yet hate ourselves as monsters? It's the age- old question, and one that every Shakespearean play revolves around. Unfortunately Kanye West found a more relevant way to tell you; I also think Drake is better than Shakespeare. Thanks, guys.
ANTHONY ANAXAGOROU: Around a year and a half ago, I asked a 19 year old college student from East London who he considered great. After a few seconds he remarked; God, then his parents, then Kanye West. During that same month I gave a talk at university to literature students on slang, and the specific value of the idiom in poetry. When we reach the Q& A, several of the students raised their hands to reference the sonics or plays of Shakespeare, using them as perfect examples of ways scansion is used in poetry today.
It will probably be sensible here to assume that both the 19 year- old college student, and the cohort of literature undergrads all at some point, had encountered the work of the great Bard; as well as perhaps revelling or dissecting the music of Kanye West - at home, in student bars with friends, or even in academic spaces - along with his videos, fashion line, private life and mercuriality. Now, I don't necessarily see this motion as being solely centered around the relevance of either artist, who each lived four hundred years apart and produced very different work in a very different time. For me it stands as philosophical inquiry into the function and mechanics of relevance in popular culture, race and class; as well as identifying what we mean by relevance, and more crucially, relevant to who? Shakespeare during the zenith of his career was largely considered a pop icon, in the same way Kanye is today. The discrepancy might well reside in whose work is regarded as being more urbane, but then again we return to the fundamental question of who finds what relevant and why? If we delve a little deeper, we find that large Shakespeare and Kanye occupy a very similar space; albeit separated by time, race, class and geography.
Firstly, if we agree that the two create a kind of art, that is widely received and deeply venerated by people across the social spectrum - qualifying it is pertinent to the cultural habitat of an epoch - then we must try and ascertain whose work is of greater significance, and for what reason. Secondly, we should also consider the possible simplification and sterilisation of popular culture over the last thirty years; again, that's not to say that the masses in the English- speaking world don't have the intellectual capacity to appreciate the work of both Shakespeare and Kanye West. It is to say that within the context of modern- day popular culture, Kanye is probably a more recognised figure in a commercial sense, but not a more relevant one in a cultural sense. Here I would ask us to consider the distinction between celebrity and fame. One requires minimal talent, relatively good looks, a substantial PR campaign and a sophisticated understanding of how to manipulate media. Sooner or later, an individual will see themselves as being part of the cult of celebrity, irrespective of output or virtue. Fame, however, demands one to produce work or leave a legacy of extraordinary caliber; to contribute significantly to the cultural framework of a society in some shape or form. To be a catalyst for change, be that good or be that bad; as we must also consider the notoriety of despots, tyrants and criminals who have worked their way into our Hall of Fame. Their legacy is one that will arguably permeate time, and consecrate itself in our cultural composition that exceeds the individual’s life; as they leave something to be celebrated, discussed, feared or absorbed by every generation that precedes them.
In that respect, the cultural relevance of Shakespeare supersedes that of Kanye West, with the former's work still enjoying production 400 years after his death; while the structure of his plays are used as template for plots and character profiles by modern- day playwrights, authors and screenwriters around the world. As mentioned, his contribution to the English lexicon of over 1700 words remains unparalleled; not to mention he leaves behind an exuberantly fecund canon, with work being required reading in institutions both in England and America. In 400 years’ time, will people still be speaking about Kayne West?
Fortunately nobody here will be around to find that out; but what we do know is that for some people alive today, Kayne is regarded as a central figure of defiance, innovation, subversion and hopefulness. An African- American man who occupy spaces traditionally reserved for white pop icons; who has transcended confines of rap music, and whose work is known for speaking directly to power and white supremacy, while tackling notions of black masculinity in an original and interesting way. Yet, if we replace Kanye with Kendrick Lamar in the debate of relevance over Shakespeare, you'll find again a very similar case being put forward to the one I'm now making; or put slightly differently, Kanye is emblematic of something that typifies Western popular culture, which might mean relevant in a superficial sense but only for a short space of time.
There is no possible way of being able to identify who these people are; the enamoured fans of the Cult of Kanye, and the mavens of the great Bard. If we tried to gauge a pop figure’s relevance at a time when thousands of pounds or dollars is being spent on a PR campaign to bring that person back into our consciousness, with the hope of us buying their latest product - or similarly, if a celebrity takes to dispersing a series of belligerent remarked over a social network - then we could equally argue that Katie Hopkins instantly becomes more relevant than Shakespeare at any given time. While saying that, it's also fair to assume that there are those of us out there who can and do appreciate the work of both artists, and see them as being part of that same ancient network of relevance, celebrity and artistry. However, in the context of legacy, contribution and gravitas, Kanye West is not more relevant than Shakespeare for the reasons I have specified. The only way to determine relevance of any kind is to examine the eventual prominence of that thing, which takes time and changing social fads; along with the impression it leaves on people's lives and the influence it holds. Kanye West, Kim Kardashian, David Beckham, Skepta, Nigel Farage, Jeremy Corbyn, JK Rowling and Ronaldo are all chief figures in their respective professions, and each name carries with it a significant amount of prestige and authority for bid for people. Part of what's being sold is the idea of greatness or immortality, which is in part an extension of the celebrity farce. You are constantly bombarded with stylised suggestions for who could be the most important figure in the world, until you at last come to forget what being important really means. If the average person was asked to name five of Shakespeare's contemporaries, most if not all would fail. That's not to say that their legacy was not substantial enough to withstand the corrosion of time; Shakespeare and the many layers to his work has proven that not only is this still relevant today in ways that are incomparable with other artists, but it will be relevant long after even we have become something else. Most of us can only dream of that legacy and protracted relevance; as Kanye aggrandised in 2013 whilst gelling his infamous torrent of abuse at DJ Sway, “I am Warhol! I am Shakespeare in the flesh! ”
BIG NARSTIE: Now, you lot have been saying some real big super- duper words; so for a more simpler mind, I wanna say this. The first person to make toilet paper - who stopped you from squatting and pooping in a bush, till the man said ‘Rah, do you know you can get some soft ting and wipe your bum with it’ - it sounds stupid, right, but look at it like this then. If Shakespeare didn’t make words - or even make the basis of a story - would I be able to tell a story My story might be sicker than Shakespeare’s - it's true, though; my story’s gonna have some real turn- up stuff; maybe midgets gassed in Ibiza - but for me to write my story, I would have to tap into Shakespeare's laws of how the thing works.
So my thing is this; Kanye is 100% more relevant due to social media and stuff, but Kanye still needs to use Shakespeare’s stuff, because Kanye couldn't stand in front of you and say nothing - just go like this - and you’d understand what he says. He would have to use a word like ‘anger’, and ‘I don't like you’ and ‘this is wrong’; it's all words. So even though evolution has happened - with man like me, having mad sauce and swag and stuff - that’s standard, innit? I’ve still got to have homage though, to where the source originally came from.
Remember, 1700s - me and my pony cruising down a meadow, pull up on a buff ting and say ‘My fair lady, would you thou like to get turnt up with thine’ - that’s pumped up stuff! But that's what I'd be working within that time. So the fact that now it’s more over - 21st century - we can't overlook the history. It's like I said to my friend the other day; the first ever football was pigskin. So now that in 2017 we can play football with balls that don't weigh nothing and come in different colours, does the pigskin lose its relevance or its importance? Because if we didn't play football with a pigskin, there would be no Ronaldinho kicking ball with a (UNCLEAR) football. And that couldn’t be making footballs, do you know what I mean?
So that's what my reference is; I would say Kanye is more relevant, but the basis comes from Shakespeare because he created the pattern of all word process. Even Capulets, Montagues; that's Bloods and Crips in old school days, do you get what I mean? Man wouldn’t let my sister go out with Peckham youth, do you get what I mean? There is no difference in times coming past; and to the statement about all the basketball creps and that, Yeezys are 100% dead food. They look like ganja smoking booger busters, yeah? Those trainers are made for astronauts, they're dead creps. Air Forces, swaggy buggers; boom, that's my speech. Rock on.
ELIZABETH SCHAFER: I also think you're absolutely right in what you did, you walked. Some of the speakers walked. I know why people have to talk like this - I can see what's going on - this is like a little Globe; this is like the Globe Playeahouse stage. I can talk to you, and you're seeing something completely different from what you're seeing over there; and that is what Shakespeare wrote for. He wrote for you to see one thing, and you to see something else. He wrote for the theatre; he wrote for performance - not on screens, three- dimensional people all around him - and he wrote that absolute engagement that you get in theatre. Because you don't know what I'm going to do now; because I'm behaving a bit strangely, and I'm not standing by that box. I might come and sit on your lap!
I just wanna say to everyone who suffered reading Shakespeare; when Shakespeare died in 1616, a whole load of his plays were not in print, because he didn't want you to read them! He wanted you to pay and go to the theatre and to see them. So when he died, Macbeth was not in print. Tempest was not in print. Winter’s Tale, Antony & Cleopatra; loads of plays were not in print. He did not want you to read them, he wanted them performed in the Playhouse and he did want you to pay money. Actually, I think Kanye and Shakespeare might have had a nice discussion about property portfolios, because they seem to have a bit of a common interest there. Anyway; so I'm interested in theatre, and if anyone’s interested in theatre, you might have noticed the play that everybody is doing at the moment. It's Julius Caesar; not my favourite of Shakespeare's plays, but you can see how theatre- makers wanting to make a profit - wanting to get people thinking - might think Julius Caesar’s quite a good place to do at the moment. That it might be relevant, pertinent; speaking to a current cultural context. This play shows how a monstrous, old, outspoken, bad- tempered - but indubitably remarkable man - is assassinated in order to prevent him from becoming Emperor. Ruler of one of the greatest world powers in history; a power that colonises culturally as well as by brute force. Hmm, I can see why Julius Caesar is the play of the year!
Well, Shakespeare of course had no thoughts of Donald Trump when he wrote his play; he was probably thinking more about the experience and challenges of living under the rule of a grumpy ageing Queen. I am referring to Queen Elizabeth; but for me what is really important about Shakespearean relevance, is that in order to be relevant - in order to hit that relevant button - Shakespeare, although he is dead, has to collaborate with the living. Living editors, living publishers, yes; but most importantly living theatre makers. These collaborators - particularly these theatre makers - will market Shakespeare’s relevance. Of course they'll say ‘Come and see this play, it's about you’, even if it isn't really about you. So are they right; they right that Shakespeare is relevant?
I think Shakespeare is astonishingly relevant, in terms of the politics and the questions that he poses about politics. That's politics in the polis, in government; politics to do with gender, race, refugee, class, any kind of politics. He's posing questions all the time, important questions; but what I think is relevant, is it what you think's relevant? Here's me; I’m white, a middle- aged - maybe old age to some of you - straight, middle class woman. Is what I think is relevant going to be the same as what you think is relevant? Maybe.
Not all of Shakespeare transcends his cultural specificity, and some of it actually I could really do without; the ending of The Taming Of The Shrew, for example. Unfortunately that is relevant, but it's just that I don't like it. I’ll make a confession - the Phoenix and the Turtle, oh my God, what is that about? I do not know - but what I thought I would do is just treat you to a quick sample of moments that I find relevant in Shakespeare, and see if you can glimpse any relevance in them. I have to say there's a spoiler alert now, because I'm going to talk about some of the endings; I'm sure them all.
Number One, Antony and Cleopatra; this is an example of word- smithery, beautiful use of words. Cleopatra has just seen her lover Anthony expire in her arms. She responds to this devastating experience by stating that after Anthony's death, “There is nothing left remarkable beneath the visiting moon. ” That speaks to me like a spark of electricity, jumping over the centuries; when I'm teaching and when I’m going ‘Oh well, it was different in Shakespeare’s day - a rose didn’t look like a rose now, because they hadn’t been through the Agrarian Revolution, and we've got to remember the difference’ - but that moment, that spark just jumped across 400 years.
Example Two, Winter's Tale; simple words. Leontes - who for sixteen years has believed his wife Hermione has been dead, because of his own atrocious behaviour - if suddenly confronted with what appears to be a statue of her coming to life, and he says ‘O, she's warm! ’ So simple, so pragmatic; but also acknowledging for some things, word- smithery won't do. Words are not enough: ‘O, she's warm! ’
Coriolanus, an absence of words, a silence; or something instead of a word. Coriolanus has spent his entire life pursuing a successful career in the line of business - being a soldier - chosen for him by his mother. He has sacrificed everything for this; he is a virtuoso, he's an impressively successful soldier, he's dedicated his life to excelling in the field. And then his mother asks him to throw it all away, and in effect commit suicide; he knows that's what she's asking. All our effort, all that hard work, all that sacrifice gone in a moment; and what does he say? He doesn’t say anything; he holds her by the hand, silent. That for me shows Shakespeare the actor; the player, as well as the great wordsmith. He knows the power of silence; and of course, there's no such thing as silence in performance, as John Cage reminds us. There is only the absence of words, or the absence of notes; listening differently. Here Shakespeare’s saying to Richard Burbage, his lead actor, ‘You do this bit, over to you’. And Burbage - and his successors; everyone who's played Coriolanus ever since - has to embody, has to perform, this ambiguous and deeply meaningful silence.
And then my fourth example, King Lear - yes, we had a lot of King Lears last year, didn't we? We had an awful lot of King Lears - but I want to just talk about emotional truth. It's been mentioned before, but for me Shakespeare offers emotional truth; Lear enters at the end, with his daughter Cordelia dead in his arms. In the Quarto - which is the earlier text - in the final dying speech there are three nevers; he goes ‘never, never, never’ - I'm not an actor so I'm not going to do it - ‘never, never, never’; but to challenge the actor, Shakespeare - who knew what it was to lose his child, his son, his heir Hamlet - later revised the text and put in five ‘never’s. Maybe Burbage really delivered on those ‘never’s, and Shakespeare gave him some more; but for me, that repetition - the word becoming meaningless - says something very important.
So in moments like this - even though Shakespeare wrote for an all- male performance environment, where males impersonated women, where feminism was not part of the intellectual landscape - I, a woman and a feminist, feel the electricity spark across the centuries; and so I ask you to vote for Shakespeare.
END OF DEBATE
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