SHAKESPEARE: Q&A with CEO Professor Simon Haines

7 November 2019

On 19 November the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation will host John Bell AO OBE, actor, theatre director and founder of Bell Shakespeare, in conversation with our CEO Professor Simon Haines.
While many Australians owe their first experience of Shakespeare on the stage to John Bell, Professor Haines has also introduced generations of students to the works of Shakespeare through his distinguished academic career.
In preparation for their dialogue, Professor Haines answers questions on what Shakespeare means to him.

  •  What was the first Shakespeare you read or saw? A Macbeth production at age 9 in my boys’ boarding school, the three witches were school prefects aged 13 and the cauldron boil and bubble scene with lots of shrieks and cackles was a big hit; and Julius Caesar in third year, we thought “Friends Romans and countrymen lend me your ears” was a hilarious line.
  • Which is your favourite Shakespeare play and why? Antony and Cleopatra because it’s such a grown-up play with such huge historical and emotional scope; and Comedy of Errors because you just can’t stop laughing.
  • Which Shakespeare play would you recommend people read or watch first? Macbeth is hard to beat in terms of gripping atmosphere.
  • Which Shakespeare have you found to be the most popular with young people? Why do you think that is the case? Romeo and Juliet probably. It’s obviously so easy for young people to identify with. Plus Macbeth (see above) and Othello, powerful male-female relationships and plenty of death and fight scenes.
  • Which Shakespeare play do you think is under-rated? Troilus and Cressida. People are often uneasy with it as neither quite comic nor tragic – but its often bitter take on sexuality and politics is extraordinary.
  • Why do Shakespeare’s plays deserve ‘great book’ status? There is no other gallery of lives created out of language quite like this one. Only Greek epic and tragedy, and a truly great novelist such as Tolstoy, can compare in terms of emotional range and depth.
  • Favourite Shakespeare performances? John Bell’s Hamlet in I think 1974! My daughter Catherine as Cleopatra in Oxford in 2011; my son Will as Timon at the Bondi Pavilion in 2008.
  • Favourite Shakespeare quotes? Impossible question. Some random ones: Antony being a bit vain as he talks about getting older: “Though grey do something mingle with our younger brown”. Cleopatra: “Oh, my oblivion is a very Antony, and I am all forgotten”. Prospero’s “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep”. Hamlet: “the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought”. Richard II: “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me”……

Simon Haines is the editor of Shakespeare and Value, recently published in Routledge’s authoritative Shakespeare International Yearbook series. The volume contains one essay each by six major international Shakespearean scholars in addition to Simon’s two: the title essay, and a second contribution, on Measure for Measure, called “The Life of Pi”. Simon has also recently published a chapter on “Recognition in Shakespeare and Hegel” in Palgrave’s Shakespeare and Emotions, discussing Othello, King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra.

He has given many talks and addresses on Shakespeare including “Unhappy Consciousness in the Merchant of Venice at the prestigious annual Kingston Shakespeare Seminar at Garrick’s Temple; and “Shakespeare and Ideology” at the Lowy Institute. For seven years Simon ran the highly successful Chinese Universities Shakespeare Festival in Hong Kong, with up to fifty mainland and Hong Kong competing teams and twelve finalists each year. He has taught Shakespeare in universities for eighteen years.

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Nowadays, undergraduates are being taught prematurely to regard the poetic heritage as an oppressive imposition and to suspect it for its latent discriminations in the realm of gender, its privilegings and marginalizations in the realms of class and power. All of this suspicion may be salutary enough when it is exercised by a mind informed by that which it is being taught to suspect, but it is a suspicion which is lamentably destructive of cultural memory when it is induced in minds without any cultural possessions whatever. "
- Seamus Heaney