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How Hamlet and Julius Caesar reflect our current political climate

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It's undeniable that William Shakespeare is one of the most popular playwrights in history.

If you’ve gone through the British education system, it’s likely that you’ve come across one, if not more, of William Shakespeare’s plays. Outside of the classroom, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) reports that over one million people visit the Stratford-upon-Avon theatre each year. In the United States, ‘Shakespeare in the Park’, which is performed in Central Park’s open-air Delacorte Theater, also remains popular, with a reported 80,000 people attending each year.

But why does Shakespeare remain so popular? One might argue that Shakespeare was phenomenal with his use of language and theatrics and that he was arguably the most popular playwright of his time. However, there might be other reasons for why he remains so popular; namely, his plays' enduring political themes.   

It is undeniable that the current political landscape is rather rocky and tense. In Britain, the Conservative Party have just confirmed a deal with the DUP, known for their anti-abortion and discriminating policies. The UK is also set to leave the EU, something which has arguably divided our nation for over a year now. In the US, President Donald Trump continues to cause havoc through his unrestricted use of Twitter and his hostility towards certain media outlets. Elsewhere in the world, such as the middle east, political conflict and civil war rage on.

But how does this link to Shakespeare? Many of Shakespeare’s plays feature some sort of political issue, especially his histories and the tragedies. Shakespeare sure loved to put a political travesty at the heart of his plays.

Take Hamlet, for instance. A King is killed by his brother, who then immediately takes his place in both political and familial worlds. Pushed by his ghostly father, Hamlet takes murderous revenge on those he blames for his father’s death, namely his uncle and mother.

Recently, The National Student reviewed a University of Birmingham production of Hamlet at the Cresent Theatre. Katie Paterson, the director of the play, spoke to The National Student about her choice of direction for the performance, linking the tragedy to the American political climate.

‘‘I was thinking about Gertrude. She's just like Melania Trump - this woman is sexualized and is made into a doll and you have no idea what she thinks about anything. She reminded me very much of Gertrude. In Hamlet, you have a sleazy leader and this enigmatic woman figure.” 

Furthermore, Paterson sees Hamlet as a left wing student-like figure: “Hamlet is a whiney intellectual student with a very left wing attitude and doesn’t really know what to do. He doesn’t understand how this man is in power.

“It just felt like a very relatable thing. A lot of people I know around me are currently feeling the same. It’s the feeling of knowing that you want to change things but not knowing how or what to do.”

In April 2017, YouGov produced statistics claiming that age is a strong factor in determining which party someone will vote for. For instance, in the 18-25 age bracket, the Labour Party have a 19% lead over the Conservative Party.

Like Hamlet, who grieves for his father, the large number of students that voted for Labour is currently going through a period of mourning. We long for what could've been possible under Corbyn, just like Hamlet longs for what his father could've achieved. 

Paterson’s Hamlet was also placed in a modern setting, making it more accessible for an audience that might not be as familiar with the play. This setting also emphasised the play's modern political links: “We didn’t need to add context; we already have the context," she says. "Hamlet is very much suited to today, perhaps even more so than the 60s or 80s."

It’s not only literal politics that Hamlet connects with; it engages with gender politics, too. Like most of Shakespeare's plays, there are very few female characters. In Article 19’s Hamlet, however, Horatio and Marcellus are both women. Paterson told The National Student: “Hamlet has been done to death and I haven’t seen a version where I’ve liked how Ophelia came across. I wanted to play with gender roles and give Ophelia more gusto."      

Elsewhere, the RSC is currently orchestrating their Rome season. The company are producing plays such as Julius Caeser, Antony and Cleopatra, and Titus Andronicus alongside other Shakespeare and Roman themed works.

In Julius Caesar, plotting within the political network brings down the great ruler. The play explores how easily a crowd can be manipulated through words and actions, something which feels particularly relevant in light of the rhetoric of Trump. 

In April 2016, The Economist wrote an article comparing Bernie Sanders to Shakespeare’s Mark Antony, finding similarities in their rhetorical style, positive perspective, approach to their competitors, and the fact they were both underestimated in their ability to win over the public. Unlike Antony, however, Sanders was not as successful as his Roman counterpart. Nevertheless, the impact he had on the American election must be commended. Very few people expected Sanders to become as popular as he was.

As a playwright, William Shakespeare covers a lot of ground. However, in 2017, it is his more political works which stand out in reflecting our current political climate. Whilst we might find many links between Hamlet, the RSC's Rome season, and the wave of conservatism sweeping the West, we can only hope that our story won't end in the same fashion as any Shakespearean tragedy. 

Visit the RSC website to find out more about their Rome season. 

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