Ismail Serageldin


Shakespeare… Forever and a day



Shakespeare… Forever and a day

Closing remarks


Ismail Serageldin




I. Introduction and Thanks


Ladies and gentlemen,


As we come to the close of this remarkable set of meetings and presentations, it is no easy task to try to say something appropriate at the end of these proceedings, which are at the center of the festivities we have planned to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the death of the bard.  We have heard of Hamlet in films of country after country, we looked in on an exhibition that included the facsimile of the first folio as well as the work of our patrons from the visually impaired to the children and youth who frequent our library.  We have been privileged to see two masterful renditions of the plays, live performances of the plays, both Macbeth and Much Ado About Nothing.  We have discussed the richness and complexities of Shakespearean verse and drama from many angles: From translation to criticism, from politics to interpretation, from history to performance, from puppets to Hip-hop.


So before I try to add a few parting words to that veritable feast, allow me first to express our thanks to those who have made this possible.


The Bibliotheca Alexandrina would like to express its gratitude and deep appreciation to its main partner, The British Council in Egypt.

It would also like to thank the donors, all who have contributed towards making the Shakespeare Festival come true.

•        Al-Ahram Institution.

•        Dr. Aida Khalafalla, President of the Minnesota Friends of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

•        Mrs. Julie Hill, Member of the Minnesota Friends.

•        Mrs. Marga Abdel Meguid, Dutch Friends of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

•        Aboukir High Institute

•        i-care

•        The Folger Shakespeare Library

And we also thank of the British School in Alexandria for their participation in the art exhibition.


Special thanks to Simon Russell Beale for having narrated the film that opened our proceedings, and thanks to Dina Aboulela and the studio team that produced it and who have filmed these proceedings and webcasted them to the many who could not be here with us in the hall.


Special thanks to each and every one of the staff and volunteers of the Library who have worked tirelessly to make this a most enjoyable event.


And last but not least the incomparable Heba El Rafey who designed the program and worked tirelessly to bring to reality…



But I would also like to express a very special thanks to you, our visitors, who have travelled long distances to join us here in Alexandria coming from four corners of the globe.  So special thanks to the participants who have made this event what it is ….   And a very special thanks to the youth, the Egyptian youth, who have so actively participated in costume and in person, or who just came to listen and enjoy…for it is for you that we do all we do. Thank you each and every one. 





II. Overview:


So what can I say that has not already been said in this rich series of presentations and discussions?


Well, one aspect that was insufficiently addressed is the issue of gender in the Shakespearean cannon, and I propose to remedy this by a future seminar which the Library shall host and which will be devoted to that important topic.


But we did celebrate Shakespeare’s genius in many ways:


First: Shakespeare was daring.  He was able to tackle topics of the murder and deposition of kings, a taboo subject in his day, with enormous power and popularity.  In fact, we know that on the occasion of the plot by Essex against Queen Elizabeth, he was subsidized by the followers of Essex to stage Richard II in order to remind the London public that deposing a monarch had happened before.  He was no timid playwright.


Second: that Shakespearean plays and characters are intentionally constructed in a multi-layered fashion, with plays that have what Ryan called a “divided voice” that eschews simplistic linearity, and allows him to bring in characters from different milieus, who speak in different ways, and that allows us to see bits of our own reflection in them and to engage with them at different levels in different ways.  There is, as Stephen Greenblatt observed, a “strategic opacity” that makes his characters a joint creation of the artist and the reader/interpreter that allows these characters to continue to involve us emotionally as well as intellectually through space and time. 


Third: His heroes and villains are prismatic creatures who have ambition and talent and human frailties and he engages us in redefining these leading characters in ways that we seldom think of.  Thus the quintessential hero, Henry V is shown to commit war crimes, the villain Richard III can woo and win his woman, and the weak and indecisive Richard II is shown to have the soul of a poet.  


Fourth: despite Shakespeare’s enormous talent with language and poetry he does not make the plays the forum for presentation of set pieces of verse, or simply a means for producing quotable statements that remain perennial favorites.  Rather he mobilizes his amazing poetic abilities and stylistic prowess to serve the cause of drama, to help create a new kind of theater where the audience is invited to join in the exploration of the mind and soul of the protagonists and to join in the intellectual and emotional development of character.   This I have tried to show in my opening address to this conference by a discussion of Richard II.


That last observation requires further elaboration, for because of it, the unique poetic talent of Shakespeare that his craftsmanship in using his poetic lines to serve the dramatic needs of the plays is insufficiently appreciated, even if certain passages are recognized as poetic masterpieces in their own right, little jewels that have enriched the treasury of English poetry.  But that craftsmanship dissolves into the background of his creations and he is seen as a master dramatist who took tragedy to new heights, just as Beethoven took the symphony to new heights, heights that have perhaps never been equaled.  It is part of his protean imagination and his multifaceted talents that his accomplishments in poetry and language tend to be overshadowed by his dramatic creations and the ceaseless wonder of his multi-layered plays.


So allow me to elaborate on this last point, namely that Shakespeare was a master craftsman in the construction of verse and in the design of poetry, and that he used that talent to subordinate the exigencies of verse to the requirements of drama.  In the process, through his learned casualness, he created a doubly powerful effect as the language was fitted to the needs of the play and gave us multi-faceted characters that engage us both intellectually and emotionally and have not lost their power to do so across space and time.


III.  What is poetry?  What is language


Words, words, words…


What are words? Asks Borges in his “This Craft of Verse”… Words are symbols for shared memories[i]. The writer can only allude, can only try to make the reader imagine. The reader constructs the rest.  The reader collaborates with the author in making a joint creation.  The author, if he is clever enough, can leave that creative ambiguity that invites the reader to make his or her contribution. 


But if selecting the right words is important, the way these words are put together is of course the essential art.  Shakespeare mastered the arts of non-dramatic poetry, and in fact as Kermode says, we can see effects in Shakespeare’s early plays that would seem strange in Hamlet or its successors (Kermode language p. ).  Shakespeare mastered the usual rhetorical devices of repetition, alliteration, Anaphora (the repetition of a word at the beginning of a sequence of sentences or phrases); epistrophe (repetition at the end of sentences) epanalepsis, (repetition of the first words at the end of the sentence or phrase), and so forth.  


But beyond the rhetorical devices, there is something that separates poetry from verse.  That separation is the basis of the poetic experience.   Partly it is the selection of the words.  The words can have sonority and elegance, or be well suited to their task to convey violence and mayhem… But also it is the power of the images and metaphors that give words their particular power…  a skill that all great authors in all periods must master, for example, these phrases from Chesterton: “marble like solid moonlight” or “gold like frozen fire”[ii].   


Dreams, images we see in our sleep, are more mysterious and suggestive and powerful than most images we see in everyday life.  Thus sleep and dreams are a recurrent theme of poetry and imagination.  Shakespeare’s makes use of dreams in his plays:  From A Midsummer’s Night Dream to The Tempest, we are invited to a willing suspension of disbelief and to go with the dreams and then accept the final outcome as reality.. Thus Prospero’s famous lines from the Tempest:


Our revels now are ended.


We are such stuff

As dreams are made on; and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.


The Tempest Act 4, scene 1, 148–158


What makes all this work is the poetic construct as much as the dramatic structure of the play.    So beyond the words, there is the poetic construct.  And that requires craftsmanship.


IV. The Poetry of Shakespearean Drama


Shakespeare, master craftsman, author of some of the most famous sonnets ever written, could make his characters speak in perfectly rhymed verse when he chose.  For example, in the first encounter between Romeo and Juliet, they speak in a perfectly metered and rhymed sonnet of fourteen lines.  Fourteen lines of iambic pentameter with an intricate rhyme scheme.  Listen to their elegant exchange:


ROMEO     If I profane with my unworthiest hand                          91

This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:

My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand

To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.


JULIET       Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,             

Which mannerly devotion shows in this;

For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,    95               And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss.


ROMEO     Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?

JULIET       Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.              100

ROMEO     O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;

They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.


JULIET       Saints do not move, though grant for prayers' sake.

ROMEO     Then move not, while my prayer's effect I take.                      104


xxxxxxx   end of sonnet   xxxxxxx


Thus from my lips, by yours, my sin is purged.


JULIET       Then have my lips the sin that they have took.

ROMEO     Sin from thy lips? O trespass sweetly urged!

Give me my sin again.


JULIET                                             You kiss by the book.

NURSE      Madam, your mother craves a word with you.                       109


The spell of perfect love – supported by a perfect sonnet – is broken by the intrusion of the Nurse… Few people who see the play can see the craftsmanship behind the perfection of that scene…


The next fourteen lines would have been a perfect second sonnet were it not for the nurse’s interruption, a portend of the rapid termination of their love affair according to Sutherland and Watts[iii].


But Shakespeare chooses to release his characters from the perfect verse that Racine maintains throughout his long and passionate plays.  So he chooses to alternate between rhymed verse, blank verse and plain language as ways of strengthening the dramatic structure of the play.


Lines now could be broken for the participation of multiple players: for example this tour de force of a single line broken into four speeches in a passage from King John, (III.iii.65–66)  where the King orders Hubert de Burgh to kill the Prince:


K. JOHN.                      Death.

HUB.       My lord?

K. JOHN.             A grave.

HUB.                                 He shall not live.

K. JOHN.                                                   Enough.



As Kermode notes: “This impressive division of one line into four speeches is surely a mark of change; language is here used not for elocution but for drama.” [iv]


But these are technical points that interest the critic while the audience appreciates the product: the play and its characters… and here too Shakespeare was also a master of infinite variety… so let me conclude with a few reflections on the variety of the bard’s creations.


V.  The Study of Man: The Kaleidoscope of Genius


Ladies and gentlemen,


“The appropriate study of man is man” said Alexander Pope.  Few have studied the human character as effectively as Shakespeare.  His characters continue to fascinate us, and every generation finds a new way of interpreting the characters that populate his plays.  There are no cardboard cutouts among his creations.  Such was his genius that he invites us to join him in filling in the many interpretations that each of the many primary characters can take.  It gives us an enormous scope for bringing our own contemporary contribution to a new and contemporary interpretation of his work. It is like looking at his brilliant work through the kaleidoscope and every turn and twist we give it yields an entirely new and equally enchanting composition.  Shakespeare’s legacy is indeed the Kaleidoscope of genius.


But even more important, such was the scope of his genius that his work though very extensive is far from repetitive.  His creations are very different.  Even within the tragedies, his range is phenomenal. 


Here is Hazlitt’s summing up the distinctness and originality of the tragedies:


Macbeth and Lear, Othello and Hamlet, are usually reckoned Shakespeare’s four principal tragedies. Lear stands first for the profound intensity of the passion; Macbeth for the wildness of the imagination and the rapidity of action; Othello for the progressive interest and powerful alternations of feeling; Hamlet for the refined development of thought and sentiment. If the force of genius shown in each of these works is astonishing, their variety is not less so.  […] not one of which has the slightest reference to the rest.”[v]



And Shakespeare’s range in understanding and presenting the human character is no less impressive.


John Guilgud, who has both directed and acted in many a Shakespeare play, has actually created his own very successful one-man-show presenting many snippets of Shakespeare’s work organized around the original monologue Shakespeare wrote for the melancholy Jacques in As you like it (Act II, Scene vii), often referred to as the Seven Ages of Man:


 All the world's a stage,

 And all the men and women merely players:

 They have their exits and their entrances;

 And one man in his time plays many parts,

 His acts being seven ages. As, first the infant,

 Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.

 And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel

 And shining morning face, creeping like snail

 Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,

 Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad

 Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier,

 Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,

 Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,

 Seeking the bubble reputation

 Even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice,

 In fair round belly with good capon lined,

 With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,

 Full of wise saws and modern instances;

 And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts

 Into the lean and slipper'd pantaloon,

 With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,

 His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide

 For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,

 Turning again toward childish treble, pipes

 And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,

 That ends this strange eventful history,

 Is second childishness and mere oblivion,

 Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.


Guilgud’s The Ages of Man was a remarkable tour-de-force, that skillfully blended the many Shakespearean passages that cover the many facets of human character and its development over time, from childhood through youth to middle age and ultimately the feebleness and senility of old age.  But with special force we find the full range of the developments between the vigor and rashness of callow youth, to the more mature, reasoned, controlled and experienced behavior of middle age, and ultimately the wisdom or the foolishness of the very old.


In each of these different “stages of man” different types of human behavior exist, and Shakespeare shows us how he can bring to life a wide range of characters and behaviors. There are no stereotypes by age as there is no pigeonholing of characters as all bad or all good, villain or hero, except in the rarest cases, and usually for a particular reason, such as Iago’s evil, which is the result of the blind hatred of the racist.


VI.  Envoi:


Ladies and gentlemen,


Shakespeare is truly the universal genius whose well is never dry, and to which we continuously go to, even today, as the latest string of plays and movies proves yet again, and which we by our presence here today amply demonstrate.


Yes indeed… The title we have chosen for these events is most appropriate:

Shakespeare, Forever and a day…


Thank you all and au revoir!





[i] Borges, This Craft of Verse, Page 117

[ii] Chesterton, “The Ballad of the White Horse”, a poem about King Alfred’s wars with the Danes. Are quoted by Borges : “… where marble and gold are compared to two things that are even more elementary. They are compared to moonlight and to fire-and not to fire itself, but to a magic frozen fire”.      (Borges Pages 52, 53)

[iii] Sutherland and Watts, p. 62.

[iv] Frank Kermode, Shakespeare’s Language,  page 21 

[v] Cited in S. Chandrasekhar, Truth and Beauty, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987, pp.35-36.


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