I’m utterly convinced of the power of words. As one of the speakers at 5×15’s Shakespearean Bibliotherapy at Selfridges said at the event, not only do I often feel that literature ‘speaks to me’ but it ‘speaks to me,’ on an intensely personal and profound level. The event followed a different format than 5×15’s usual, and Tazeen Ahmad lead a panel of actor and bibliotherapist Simon Callow, Booker-prize winning author Ben Okri, and writer Jay Griffiths discuss the healing power of the Bard and his relevance today.
Beginning with a Callow’s impassioned reading of Sonnet 87, the room was silenced. The experience of love is an individual one, yet all could relate to it. In fact Callow believes that Shakespeare’s quintessential point is our shared humanity and that we’re all in it together.
Griffiths discussed how Shakespeare helped her out of manic depression, although seemed a little quick to see the illness evident in every one of Shakespeare’s characters, including Hamlet, Lear, Antonio, Prospero and more.
There’s much do be learned from Shakespeare, on practical, psychological and emotional levels. ‘Shakespeare’s plays are always on three levels: the soul, mind, body. He speaks to each level, but primarily to the soul.’ And he does it across the canon and in solo lies. Reading from Hamlet 2.2.2 Okri remarks that in only a few sentences Shakespeare speaks of the highest and basest levels of humanity, the sea, sky and solar system, heavens and hell…and then back again to the specific moment.
The debates about what Shakespeare would have made of Brexit and the language of Twitter (probably run with it and changed it, just like he did with most of the English language) were less powerful than the exploration of Shakespeare’s role at capturing the universal.
Bibliotherapy is predicated on the idea that reading and literature has a powerful effect. It’s not only that it makes us feel better though. Research from Professor Philip Davis from the University of Liverpool’s School of English says that Shakespeare’s language actually ‘shift mental pathways and open possibilities’ for what the brain can do. Stories and words are immensely powerful, for all people and all times. In our scientific and tech heavy age we can be too quick to dismiss their value. As Okri said, Shakespeare ‘speaks to our souls through fairytales. They are simple, but also complex and deadly.’ But also life affirming, which is why Shakespeare still matters.