John Kittmer

John Kittmer

Former UK ambassador to the Hellenic Republic

Part of Greek Blogyssey

15th March 2016 Athens, Greece

400 years since the death of Shakespeare

It was one of those arguments you get yourself into as an undergraduate. “Imagine you wake up one morning and almost all literary culture has been destroyed; if one play alone remained, what would you want it to be?” Although I was studying classics, my answer was clear: “I would be praying for the survival of Hamlet, the greatest play ever written.” My friend, by contrast, had something by Sophocles in mind and our earnest jousting began.

I was thinking about that argument and my teenage self the other day when I was watching a production of Hamlet at the Megaron in Athens, by the touring company of Shakespeare’s Globe. This year is the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare and the accompanying celebration of his influence is being marked worldwide. The Globe to Globe Hamlet is at the centre of this effort and is being performed in every country of the globe (http://globetoglobe.shakespearesglobe.com). The two performances in Athens marked the start of the final leg of the two-year tour, which will finish before 23 April, the date of Shakespeare’s birth and death.

The production’s director, Dominic Dromgoole, has said, “The central principle of the tour is that Shakespeare can entertain and speak to anyone, no matter where they are on earth; and that no country or people are not better off for the lively presence of Hamlet.” I agree wholeheartedly with this and thought that the production was wonderful: lively, apparently spontaneous, dramatic and moving.

In Greece, where the history of western drama really began, there are many reasons to be interested in Shakespeare too. The affinity between Elizabethan and Greek drama is itself much debated. To what extent were these two types of drama, which arose at such different times and in such different contexts, at all related? How much did Shakespeare – with his ‘small Latin and less Greek’ – know the world of ancient drama, whether Roman or Greek, tragic or comic? Do these two traditions of drama address purely local or truly universal themes and concerns?

If those lines of thought seem too academic, you may find your interest piqued by the colour and variety of Shakespeare’s Greek and Roman plays. There are quite a few of them. Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra are partly set in Greece (at Philippi and Actium respectively). Troilus and Cressida retells the Trojan War. The Comedy of Errors and Pericles are set in the Greco-Roman world. Some people argue that the setting of The Tempest is Corfu. And there is no doubt about the Athenian setting of two very different plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Timon of Athens.

The living tradition of these great dramas matters too. What relevance do Shakespearian and ancient dramas have today? How do directors and producers make them contemporary to modern audiences? Can audiences respond with immediacy to Othello or The Merchant of Venice? In Greece with your own tradition, you answer that question every year, particularly in the summer at the Festival of Athens and Epidaurus. And answers are similarly being given to the question of Shakespeare’s relevance, every day on the boards of theatres up and down the UK. We have every reason to be confident that the tradition is alive and vital. That is why we have chosen the title Shakespeare Lives for the global celebration of the quatercentenary. You can find out more on the campaign’s website (http://www.shakespearelives.org).

As you can see from the great Shakespeare Lives banner outside the Megaron, our celebration in Greece has already begun. In addition to the Globe to Globe Hamlet, there has been a lecture by Gregory Thompson and a transmission by National Theatre Live of its production of As You Like It. More is planned and you can keep track of our plans at https://www.britishcouncil.gr/programmes/shakespeare-lives. After the critical success of the Greek National Theatre’s Richard III, let us also hope for more productions this year of Shakespeare in Greek.

If you’re back in the UK, don’t miss out on live performances – this year’s seasons by Shakespeare’s Globe (http://www.shakespearesglobe.com) and the Royal Shakespeare Company (https://www.rsc.org.uk) look very exciting. In Shakespeare there is something for everyone. “All the world’s a stage,” as the playwright put it, and in the UK this celebratory year you will surely find, in Hamlet’s words, “the best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable or poem unlimited”.

Wherever you find a performance, enjoy the show!

About John Kittmer

John Kittmer was Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the Hellenic Republic from 2013 to 2016.