Shakespeare Globe will be running a series of innovative lectures, readings, plays, courses, exhibitions and seminars on the subject of Shakespeare and Islam. Patrick Spottiswoode, Director of Globe Education, shares with us his hopes and aspirations for this season's events.
Globe Education is the education arm of the reconstructed Globe Theatre on Bankside in Southwark. We aim to introduce people of all ages to the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries and to explore how the theatre architecture of the Globe influenced the writing of plays and the relationship between actors and audiences. The Globe is an outdoor theatre in the round. Actors walking onto the Globe stage can see over 1,400 people gathering around them, standing and sitting. This creates a charged atmosphere and a sense of a shared community in the theatre.
Globe Education works with about 70,000 people every year in a range of workshops and courses as well as with lectures and staged readings. Every spring and autumn we choose themes for a series of public events and this year our theme is Shakespeare and Islam.
The idea for a season on Shakespeare and Islam may seem at first surprising. We have chosen a variety of themes over the years including `Shakespeare and Spain' and `Shakespeare and the Lawyers' but one of my favourites was `Shakespeare and Shoes'.
The original idea for Shakespeare and Islam was to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's Othello. Othello is a Moor living in Venetian, and therefore a Catholic, society. While Shakespeare does not allude to his faith, it is probable that he was born a Muslim but had to convert to Catholicism. He is then sent to fight the Ottoman Empire. The villain of the play who ends up destroying him is called Iago. Sant Iago is the patron saint of Catholic Spain. Sant Iago is said to have appeared in a vision to the Spanish army on the eve of a battle against an army of Moors. He has thus become known as Sant Iago Matamoros (St James the Moorslayer). Shakespeare's Iago is far from saintly.
It was a conversation with His Excellency the Moroccan Ambassador that encouraged us to explore England's relationship not only with Morocco but also with other Islamic lands at the time of Shakespeare. The Ambassador believes that Othello would have been a Moroccan. Queen Elizabeth Ist was involved in treaty negotiations with Morocco to combine forces against the Spanish. Both Elizabeth and the Moroccan sultan Al-Mansour, died in 1603.
However it is important for us not to `live in the past'. Theatre is about `now' and we felt it was important to explore current attitudes to and understanding of Islam in Britain. I therefore met with representatives of the MCB to discuss ways in which the season might build bridges and understanding. I was moved by the nature of the response and have always only met with a positive desire to help.
I am particularly indebted to Dr Bari who introduced me to other members of MCB, all of whom have offered support. Dr Akbar and Dr Sherif have made invaluable recommendations and I had the good fortune to meet Dr Ali of the Khayaal Theatre Company. Most recently I have met with Dr Murshad, Head of the Hermitage School in Tower Hamlets and we will be working on a project with his students. Everyone is offering advice and guidance. I very much need that advice and guidance!
Together we will plan an exciting autumn programme that will build on the spring season. The Association of Muslim Schools has expressed interest, too. This would be a wonderful organisation to work with.
This spring Shakespeare and Islam will explore the complex web of diplomatic, trade and cultural negotiations between England and Islamic lands and include staged readings of some plays by Shakespeare's contemporaries in which Moors and Turks are presented.
Lectures from distinguished scholars will provide a variety of insights and perspectives. Professor Matar will lecture on the Elizabethan Stage Moor while Professor Haleem will give an introduction to The Qur'an and its aural beauty as well as an overview of Shakespeare in Arabic.
Children from Southwark schools will be presenting Othello on the Globe stage and some will be visiting the East London Mosque and St George's Cathedral as part of their research. Primary schools from Tower Hamlets and Westminster will be working on handkerchief designs following a visit to the Art from Islamic Lands exhibition at Somerset House. A handkerchief spotted with strawberries was the gift Othello gave to his wife Desdemona. Children will design their own love token handkerchiefs and some will be embroidered professionally. A web resource on Ottoman handkerchiefs and Othello will be created.
It is difficult to appreciate the soul of a play sitting at a desk in a classroom. School Shakespeare is often difficult especially if you know you are going to be tested on the play. You are encouraged to take your heads into an exam room and not your hearts. Faced with an exam question you often scratch your head while Shakespeare asks you to scratch your heart.
The best place to meet Shakespeare is in a theatre but then not all productions scratch the heart either. The most important thing, I think, is to consider Shakespeare as modern and writing about modern situations. I know his language can be difficult, especially if it is not heard or spoken, but workshops on plays can help to overcome some difficulties and help get Shakespeare into your bloodstream.
I believe that the relationships that Globe Education is developing with the MCB and with various Muslim organisations will continue to develop once the Shakespeare and Islam seasons end. Judging by the conversations I have been having thus far, longer-term projects will follow.