William's on the web

11th February 2000 at 00:00
Ever wondered what the Bard would make of Leonardo DiCaprio's Romeo? Then send him an e-mail and ask. Rex Gibson explains

Did you know that Shakespeare wrote one of his sonnets to Anne Hathaway? That he changed his will to make sure a son-in-law couldn't get his hands on the Shakespeare money? That in New York in 1849, 20 people were killed in a riot over the way Macbeth was acted? Scrolling through the questions and answers on the Learnfree website's "Ask Shakespeare" page is a fascinating and revealing experience. Pupils' and teachers' questions give an insight into what really interests them.

At first sight some questions look as if they've been put by a Hello! reporter. On closer inspection they address fundamental issues about the creative process. "Are any of your plays based on your life experiences?" "Were you suffering from depression when you wrote King Lear?" "Is Prospero in The Tempest based on you?" Answering such questions, Learnfree's Shakespeare feels rather like Hamlet when he accused Guildenstern of trying to "pluck out the heart of my mystery". So far he hasn't mentioned the film Shakespeare in Love, but his replies show he's well aware of the theory that knowing about an author's life helps you understand their work.

So the answers are partly "No - because I can't split oaks with lightning bolts, like Prospero - and I was certainly never Queen of Egypt like Cleopatra!" And partly "Yes - because I can imagine all my characters' thoughts and feelings, and can draw upon my own emotions of love or despair or jealousy." Asked about Lady Macbeth, he tells how his imagination was set alight by just a few words in Holinshed's Chronicles saying that she was "very ambitious", and "burning" to be queen.

Many questions and answers will gladden hearts across the key stages. They help younger pupils doing "Life and Times", and A-level candidates, who will soon be required by all exam boards to answer context questions on Shakespeare. Behind the informal e-mail style is a genuine desire to understand the influence on the playwright of cultural, social and historical factos: "Where did you find the story of Romeo and Juliet?" "What were your thoughts when you heard about the Gunpowder Plot?" (Shakespeare's answer begins: "How can I use that in my next play?").

Jane, aged 12, has obviously been keeping up with the hottest topic in Shakespearian scholarship today: "I've heard you spent some years as a teacher and actor in Lancashire. Is this true?" Shakespeare reminds her of many other theories about those "lost years", but decides to keep his secret: "Everybody can make up a story of what I did between 15-23, using their imagination and the 'clues' they think there are in the plays. So why not make up your own tale, Jane?" Jason, 15, wants to know if Shakespeare really did have "small Latin and less Greek". Jason's question clearly touches Shakespeare on a raw spot, and he tells how his Stratford schooling greatly helped his playwriting. Emile, 14, speaks for many students (let alone the cultural materialists) when he asks why Shakespeare always set his plays in wealthy communities:

"Didn't poor people do anything worth writing about?" Shakespeare cites Macbeth's Porter, Hamlet's gravedigger, and all the servants and citizens who comment sharply on their "superiors".

"But my audiences expected to see the doings of the great!" Many questions can't be pigeon-holed. "Why didn't you write about Arthur and Merlin?" (Shakespeare admits a lost opportunity). "Who today would be the ideal Romeo? What do you think of Leonardo DiCaprio?" Asked if actors are right to be superstitious about "the Scottish play", Shakespeare says it's always been lucky for him: "Audiences enjoy it. And it helped me buy a few more acres near Stratford!" As yet, there have been few questions on Elizabethan theatre, character, "theory" or language, but in time the site will prove a fertile resource to discover what pupils and teachers really want to know about Shakespeare. And does Hamlet really go mad? Log on to Learnfree now, and find out.

The Learnfree website is supported by The TES. www.learnfree.co.ukRex Gibson is editor of the Cambridge School Shakespeare series

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