The Inspiration Of William Shakespeare From Student Theatre And Shaping Of Academic Literature
Shall I compare thee to a student play? Shakespeare was inspired by student theatre when writing some of his most important works, new research suggests.
The Bard once wrote ‘Youth, I do adore thee’ – and the university drama of his day influenced some of his most famous characters – including Macbeth and Hamlet, according to a Shakespearean expert.
It has emerged that the bard was aware of the sometimes controversial drama staged at Oxford and Cambridge – the ‘footlights’ of its day.
Dr. Daniel Blank, Assistant Professor in Early Modern Literature at Durham University, has outlined his research in a new book called Shakespeare and University Drama in Early Modern England.
He rejects the assumption that because Shakespeare did not go to university, he did not have any knowledge of university theatre.
Dr. Blank explained that while student theatre is a staple of undergraduate life today, back in the 16th and 17th Centuries it was “controversial and contentious” – sparking debates around issues such as gender, identity, propriety and morals.
He believes that such performances, and the insight they provided Shakespeare influenced his work and how he depicted university culture on the stage.
Dr. Blank said: “Student theatre and the controversy around it offered Shakespeare a window into the world of universities which he seized upon.
“Shakespeare used this to inspire some of his most famous characters such as Hamlet and Macbeth, and to shape depictions of academic culture in some of his works.
“It is a fascinating insight into Shakespeare’s interest in and engagement with university life.”
An example in the book outlines the connections between Hamlet and William Gager’s Hippolytus, a controversial university play that was performed at Oxford in 1592, which critiqued and “mocked” the insularity of the university.
Dr. Blank said: “At a time when some of Gager’s contemporaries were opposed to the theatre on moral and religious grounds, a movement known as ‘antitheatricalism, Gager crafted Hippolytus as an extreme caricature of their prejudices.
“Shakespeare’s most famous student, Hamlet, displays the same prejudices, which he learned as a university student at Wittenberg.”
He added: “By considering Hamlet in relation to Hippolytus, we can see how famous scenes like Hamlet’s interactions with Ophelia and with the acting troupe that visits Elsinore were shaped by, and engage with, contemporary debates about student theatre and the morality of performance.”
Other examples explored in the book include a connection between Macbeth and Tres Sibyllae, a short play performed before King James I when he visited Oxford in 1605.
Dr. Blank says that his book aims to tell a part of Shakespeare’s history not often explored, that of his relationship with student drama and intellectual culture, alongside the history and importance of student plays.
He looked at a number of student plays from the 16th and 17th Centuries, finding specific parallels between Shakespeare’s work and plays performed by students at Oxford and Cambridge, illustrating the playwright’s “awareness” and “engagement” with these student productions.
Shakespeare and University Drama in Early Modern England, published by Oxford University Press, is available in the UK from March 2, and the US from June 2.
Produced in association with SWNS Talker