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Barnardine's Straw: The Devil in Shakespeare’s Detail

Mr Michael Pennington

Chair: Professor Jonathan Bate, FBA

5.30 pm, 23 April 2004

The British Academy, 10 Carlton House Terrace, London SW1Y 5AH


The friendly truce that has come to exist between two Shakespearian constituencies - the scholars and the practitioners - has brought a new intellectual credibility to the latter together with, for the former, an absorption in the minutiae of live performance. Despite the occasional unease felt by an actor on a lecture platform or by the academic feeling like a breathless fan, we know at last that we are engaged in the same enquiry, though probably as far as ever from any conclusions. Meanwhile, our two audiences, readers and spectators, supply a market for Shakespeare that seems equally indifferent to educational policy and to changing intellectual fashion.

Forty years of practice, in which the systematic study of the texts has supported the daily practice of rendering them entertaining, suggest to me that in Shakespeare the devil is as much in the small detail as in the visceral rush. When we quote from Shakespeare, as we do almost daily without attribution, we do it as often from the language of trade as from high tragedy. The actor remains, uniquely, the tool for this enormous range, though he rarely talks about it. I hope, in the British Academy’s 2004 Shakespeare Lecture, to illustrate something of how he or she must weave a path between theories of verse speaking, critical assumptions and changing theatre fashions, to make Shakespeare’s language continue to walk in our lives, as much in the everyday detail of his working men as in the rhetoric of his kings.

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