Afterwords: Shakespeare's Relevance

Isaac Parham · Thu, 9 Dec 2021

Negative capability, thought experiments and wicked problems – what we learned from our Shakespeare's Relevance collection.

Statue of William Shakespeare. Credit: Taha

Shakespeare is a cultural phenomenon. His plays and poems have been translated into seventy five languages (even Klingon and Esperanto) and continue to inspire countless books, films and exhibitions. Studying Shakespeare remains mandatory in UK secondary schools. All of which is testament to the genius of his writing and its enduring relevance. 

Our recent Shakespeare-themed collection of Garden Talks saw us invite leading Shakespeare scholars into The Garden to help us understand his work and ideas more deeply. We wanted to know why Shakespeare made the creative choices he did and how his ideas about society and human nature can help us make sense of the modern world. We weren’t to be disappointed. 

Here’s a rundown of our favourite moments from the collection, along with what we learned and related things to watch, read and listen to.

“Shakespeare is asking us to stay uncomfortable in our own perspectives”

Our first Garden Talk saw the wonderful Dr Jessica Riddell introduce the concept of 'Wicked Problems' – those that are liable to change and difficult to solve – and explore how Shakespeare's ideas can help us tackle the wicked problems of today, from the climate crisis to gender violence. Stay tuned for more Garden Talks from Jessica in the future.

Next up was her collaborator Dr Lisa Dickson. Lisa can pinpoint the exact moment that she became fascinated by Shakespeare – in 1986 at a performance of Hamlet in Ontario, Canada. Thirty five years later, she dropped into The Garden to give us a thrilling insight into Shakespeare’s Henry V and what it reveals about the nature of truth and society.

She began by taking us back to the play’s opening night at The Globe Theatre in London. Those in attendance – a raucous mix of lords, orange sellers and bear-baiters – were expecting to revel in the titular king’s heroic defeat of the French at Agincourt. 

The opening scene played to that expectation, transporting the audience to the “fields of France” and asking them to imagine a “warlike Henry”. But what followed, Lisa explained, was in fact a piercing study of Englishness and the thorny nature of perspective, delivered in a theatre designed to allow the audience to see the action (and each other) from multiple vantage points. Shakespeare at his nuanced and provocative best.

What we loved about this talk is that it gave us both the micro and the macro. So while we learnt that Henry’s famous “once more unto the breach” speech far from being a triumphant battle cry was actually a desperate plea to beleaguered soldiers, we also considered how the play and the ideas within it could inspire us to think differently about contemporary issues – namely, Covid-19 and climate change. As Lisa concluded, “Wicked problems demand wicked thinkers.”

Lightbulb Moment

Shakespeare asks us to think critically, to think hopefully, to be critical listeners. He asks us to embrace discomfort and messiness and difference, so that we can act with empathy in the world.

Watch back:

How are truths made?

“What a piece of work is a man”

This idea of “wicked problems” was also central to Professor Shannon Murray’s Garden Talk, Can life be both wonderful and terrible at the same time? Here, the case study was Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which she brought to life through rich detail and readings from the text. 

To get to the truth of a wicked problem, Shannon argued in the intro, we need to be comfortable with holding two ideas in our head simultaneously. As Hamlet does when he compares humans to Gods and Angels before undercutting with that now famous line: “And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?”

Shannon’s talk also introduced us to the idea of Negative Capability – which Romantic poet John Keats actually coined in relation to Shakespeare. He wrote: “and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” It struck us that a lot of the writers and artists revered in modern times display similar qualities. 

Shannon’s captivating Talk urged us to embrace the ambiguities and complexities of our world and work with them rather than against them. To reject binary assumptions and not to give in to dogma. And, more than anything, to be hopeful.

It’s a lesson Shakespeare taught us again and again.

Lightbulb Moment

When I decide to choose to be hopeful, one of the things that I’m most hopeful about is that we can look at the way the wicked problems of the world are and we can decide to hang on to the complexity, the nuance and the ambiguity, rather than trying to flatten them.” 

Watch back:

Can life be both wonderful and terrible at the same time?

“Shakespeare was thinking like an experimenter”

Dr Fathali M. Moghaddam comes at Shakespeare from a different angle. A professor of Psychology, he is concerned with what lessons Shakespeare holds for the science community. His Garden Talk was on the topic of thought-experiments: how Shakespeare used them in his work and what lessons we can take from them. 

It began with a revelation: that Einstein never actually carried out a lab-based experiment. All of his breakthroughs, Fathali said, came instead through thought-experiments – one of which led to him discovering the existence of black holes.

A few centuries before Einstein, Shakespeare had also tapped into the power of the thought experiment. Fathali outlined how he uses the device again and again in his plays – from the staging of a play within a play in Hamlet to the humbling of the title character in King Lear – casting Shakespeare in the role of experimenter.

What did we take from Fathali’s compelling Garden Talk? That Shakespeare was an early adopter of thought experiments and not only used them to expose his characters – but society itself. 

Lightbulb Moment:

Shakespeare was a real experimenter in the way that he thought about the world. In the way that he thought about testing ideas. And in the way that he approached his plays. He was at the forefront of the scientific developments that were taking place at the time.

Watch back:

Were the first thought experiments in Shakespeare’s plays?

Explore more

We hope you enjoyed and learnt a lot from this collection of Garden Talks. But don't stop here - we’ve prepared a list of related things to watch, read and listen to. Tag us on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook (@thegarden_talks) to share your own reflections and continue the conversation. 


Wyrd Words Podcast, with Dr Shannon Murray, Dr Jessica Riddell and Dr Lisa Dickson (Apple Podcasts)


Shakespearean: On Life & Language in Times of Disruption (Robert McCrum)


Wicked Problems and How to Solve Them (The Conversation)


The Story of Theatre (The V&A)


The Siege of Harfleur (The National Archives)


How Einstein Solved Difficult Problems (fs)


The King (Netflix)

Shakespeare's Relevance Collection

Shakespeare isn't just a dead white guy. His plays and ideas are still relevant today. In this collection, your Fellows will bring Shakespeare to life and make you consider his relevance as a guide to the world we live in today.

Does love get better with age?

Dr. Jessica Riddell

Romeo and Juliet are often held up as the romantic ideal, willing to risk it all for their one great love. But if Shakespeare really agreed that this is what true love looks like, why are so many of his favourite couples distinctly... middle-aged?

On demand
Watch now
How are truths made?

Prof. Lisa Dickson

What you believe about the world depends on the lens you view it through. What does Shakespeare's Henry V have to tell us about different perspectives and where the real truth lies?

On demand
Watch now
Can life be both wonderful and terrible at the same time?

Prof. Shannon Murray

The modern world is increasingly polarised; we see things in black and white. How can Shakespeare teach us to hold two conflicting ideas in our heads simultaneously?

On demand
Watch now
Were the first thought experiments in Shakespeare's plays?

Prof. Fathali M. Moghaddam

Scientists have long used thought experiments to further their understanding of the world. But was Shakespeare the first person to do it?

On demand
Watch now

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