The Bard and the Bardic Tradition

Title_page_William_Shakespeare's_First_Folio_1623

As we celebrated the 400th anniversary of the Swan of Avon, William Shakespeare, who died on his 52nd birthday, April 23rd, 1616, it is timely to consider his other epithet: The Bard. For many people this is probably their only association with the term. It originally denoted one of a tripartite caste in ‘Celtic’ Iron Age Britain: the druid (priest/ess; philosopher; lawmaker); ovate (Seer; healer); and bard. The latter became associated with the Welsh oral and literary tradition (and as Fili, in the Irish) where they lived on, preserving many of their original functions: genealogist/historian; storyteller; poet; wisdom-bearer; magician of words; and remembrancer. I would like to consider these in detail here and see if Shakespeare and his ‘complete works’ (chiefly the 37 plays penned by him in brief, astonishingly creative life) fulfill any of these.

Genealogist/Historian: The Iron Age Bard would relate the genealogies of the tribe – the ancestral bloodlines, stretching back through the generations, validating the claims of chieftainship, of a tribe’s association with the land it lives on. Shakespeare continued this aspect of the bard, drawing upon the pseudo-lineage created by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his 13th Century History of the Kings of Britain, for lives of the Romano-British Cymbeline and the mythical King Lear (the son of King Bladud of Bath, who is also mention by Geoffrey, but is not honoured with the Shakespeare treatment). Throughout his plays he raids the ‘myth-kitty’ for magical, folkloric elements (Herne the Hunter; Robin Goodfellow; Puck; Ariel; Caliban; the 3 witches; spells, prophecies, curses and customs) – the smoke and mirrors of theatre offering a sympathetic magic for depictions and deconstructions of enchantment. Yet much of Shakespeare’s uncanny shenanigans are framed by ostensibly historical settings, giving them verisimilitude. The uncanny and the actual jostle on stage as we are spell-bound by bloody history.

Through his History Plays[1], Shakespeare is, for many, their first introduction to the infinite complexity of English history. In his dramas, relating the rise and fall of the Kings and Queens of England and Scotland, we see recurring themes of hubris, madness, revenge, fateful misunderstanding, fatal flaw, nobility and infamy. The good, the bad and the ugly. He engages our hearts and minds more than any history book could – bringing alive other centuries in an immersive, full-bloodied way. Before hit TV shows and movies, before historical novels, this was the only way to time travel in Elizabethan England: The Globe was Shakespeare’s TARDIS. We visit it not for historical accuracy, but for emotional accuracy, for escapism, a ‘mirror to our times’ and a visceral experience.

Storyteller: Shakespeare is a consummate storyteller in both his plotting and characterisation. We would not remember his histories if not for the storytelling. For the way he brings these dusty figures from the past alive, gives them immortal lines that will live on in the English language long after we have forgotten who spoke them. Through his comedies[2] and tragedies[3] (some of which slip between the two) he reveals all the foibles of the human condition: the cruelty and kindness, pettiness and greatness, hilarity and horror – the whole gamut of emotion. He tells, through the particular, archetypal stories which have been adapted into virtually every medium and translated into almost every major living language – for they express something universal.  As though he plays the three strains of the harp – the bard’s classic instrument – Shakespeare can make us weep (Goltai), laugh (Geantrai) or soothe us into a peaceful sleep (Suantrai). So well-crafted are Shakespeare’s plots that they have been cannibalised by countless writers and directors either directly (e.g. the legion of adaptations of the plays in ballet, opera, TV, film, computer game, prose fiction or manga form) or indirectly (e.g. West Side Story; Kiss Me Kate; Kurosawa’s Ran or Throne of Blood; Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books). Even just a quote from a Shakespeare play can provide a drama or novel with imported gravitas and thematic coherence. Shakespeare oeuvre has become the DNA of drama, its coding interlacing with the genetic material of the author’s own imagination, creating endless mutant variations. The ‘Swan of Avon’ virus has permeated every aspect of culture.

Poet: Every line of his plays fizzes and crackles with poetry, to the point that it is almost pointless to select any examples. One simply has to read a page at random from his Complete Works. Metaphor. Simile. Alliteration. Assonance. Consonance. Metre. Shakespeare’s English shows what can be done with the language – it is multi-layered and exquisite to the ear. It takes a moment to attune to but when we do, we realize what a watered down version of our mother tongue we get these days. To drink deep from Shakespeare is to drink from the source.

So many of Shakespeare’s lines have entered the English language and imagination to the point that they have become as familiar and loved to our linguistic landscape as daffodils, chalk figures, Stonehenge, the village green, and ruinous castles by winding rivers have become icons of this ‘sceptred isle’. Here are only a smattering of examples:

“Can one desire too much of a good thing?” (As You Like It, Act IV, Scene I).

“Off with his head!” – (King Richard III, Act III, Scene IV).

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. – (Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene II).

“But love is blind, and lovers cannot see”. (The Merchant of Venice, Act 2, Scene 6).

“Why, then the world ‘s mine oyster” – (The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act II, Scene II).

“What ‘s done is done”.- (Macbeth, Act III, Scene II).

“‘T’is neither here nor there.” – (Othello, Act IV, Scene III).

“I have not slept one wink.”. – (Cymbeline, Act III, Scene III).

We spout Shakespeare in our daily conversation but do not realize it, and we turn to Shakespeare – to his plays, to his sonnets – to help us fathom and articulate every permutation of the human heart, of which he is our most eloquent ambassador.

Wisdom-bearer: What distinguishes a bard from a mere minstrel is the deeper understanding of the symbols and meaning behind the words, the stories. Bards do not simply repeat ‘classics’, like a pub singer doing hoary covers. They have connected to the living reality of the story or song or poem, inhabited it, lived and breathed it, and embodied it in their daily lives. They are able to impart the underlying wisdom behind reality and offer an insight into the human condition. This is what separates them from the average wordsmith – the hack journalist, potboiler novelist, copywriter, political speech-writer – who push words around their screens like so many fridge-magnets, never going beneath the surface, the veneer they are creating. The bard conveys wisdom, not simply knowledge – a hard-won wisdom tested by life’s ‘slings and arrows’, by solitude and deep journeying. Shakespeare, whose life was struck by hardship and tragedy (e.g. the loss of his son Hamnet, aged eleven) does this time and time again. His plays dredge the depths of humanity and reaches to its heights. Even in the darkest scenes of his plays there is a sense of majesty – that is, in the sheer creative effort of learning lines, acting, choreography, set design, lighting, costume, music, directing, and active listening, one is glimpsing what humans are capable of when we transcend our differences and collaborate.

Magician of words: The classic bard channelled the awen (Welsh, f. noun, ‘inspiration’) the creative force behind existence, through their words and music. Shakespeare in his plays, in his poetry, provides evidence of this gramarye. He re-enchants language, gives it a spell-binding, incantatory, talismanic quality – one that could conjure worlds, draw tears and laughter from the audience, make us look into the recesses of our own souls and the fabric of our lives. In Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest, we have, in the character of Prospero, an alter-ego for the playwright himself, adept at conjuring and dispelling worlds with his words:

Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves,
And ye that on the sands with printless foot 2055
Do chase the ebbing Neptune and do fly him
When he comes back; you demi-puppets that
By moonshine do the green sour ringlets make,
Whereof the ewe not bites, and you whose pastime
Is to make midnight mushrooms, that rejoice 2060
To hear the solemn curfew; by whose aid,
Weak masters though ye be, I have bedimm’d
The noontide sun, call’d forth the mutinous winds,
And ‘twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring war: to the dread rattling thunder 2065
Have I given fire and rifted Jove’s stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake and by the spurs pluck’d up
The pine and cedar: graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ’em forth 2070
By my so potent art. But this rough magic
I here abjure, and, when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff, 2075
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.   (The Tempest, Act V, Scene 1)

Remembrancer 

Finally, I would add to the list of Shakespeare’s bardic credentials that of Remembrancer. Traditionally, bards had to learn an impressive repertoire of 350 tales, as well as grammar, glosses, oghams, orations and poems, over a 12 year training period. Before literacy was commonplace bards were the walking libraries of the tribe. They had stories for every occasion: wooings and weddings, births, battles and funerals. Shakespeare, as an actor, had to line a large and adaptable repertoire. His own company, The King Chamberlain’s Men, had to master many of his plays, his long poems, and other popular pieces of the time. As Polonius says, such as they are:

The best actors in the world, either for tragedy,
comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical,
historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-
comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or
poem unlimited: Seneca cannot be too heavy, nor
Plautus too light. For the law of writ and the
liberty, these are the only men.

And, finally, with his incredible legacy, Shakespeare has inspired countless actors – from schoolchildren to veterans of the stage – to memorize and master his exquisite words. Whenever Shakespeare is performed live we experience the power of memory combined with the beauty of language. In this regard, the Shakespearean tradition is in effect a bardic one, a global bardic college which specializes in the development and dissemination of the bardic arts: word, memory and wisdom.

And so I would conclude that William Shakespeare, a priest in the Chapel of Memory. does indeed live up to the epithet of ‘The Bard’. And I do not think the definite article here is too presumptuous – for as an actor and a writer who skilfully straddled the worlds of the stage and the page Shakespeare showed he could ‘walk his talk’, and his incredible legacy – both prolific and of the highest calibre – qualifies him in my and many people’s eyes as the greatest bard that ever lived and wrote in the English language. And if his epithet makes the curious look closer at the origins of the word, and the tradition it denotes, then that is a many-splendoured thing too.

Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 25 April 2016

The Bardic Handbook: the complete manual for the 21st Century bard, Kevan Manwaring, Gothic Image 2006.

The Way of Awen: journey of a bard, Kevan Manwaring, O Books, 2010

 

[1] Henry IV, Part I; Henry IV, Part II; Henry V; Henry VI, Part I; Henry VI, Part II; Henry VI, Part III; Henry VIII; King John; Pericles; Richard II; Richard III

[2] All’s Well That Ends Well; As You Like It; Comedy of Errors; Love’s Labour’s Lost; Measure for Measure; Merchant of Venice; Merry Wives of Windsor; Midsummer Night’s Dream; Much Ado about Nothing; Taming of the Shrew; The Tempest
Twelfth Night; Two Gentlemen of Verona; The Winter’s Tale.

[3] Antony and Cleopatra; Coriolanus; Cymbeline; Hamlet; Julius Caesar; King Lear; Macbeth; Othello; Romeo and Juliet; Timon of Athens; Titus Andronicus;Troilus and Cressida.

 

The Bardic Handbook: the complete manual for the 21st Century bard, Kevan Manwaring, Gothic Image 2006.

The Way of Awen: journey of a bard, Kevan Manwaring, O Books, 2010

 

[1] Henry IV, Part I; Henry IV, Part II; Henry V; Henry VI, Part I; Henry VI, Part II; Henry VI, Part III; Henry VIII; King John; Pericles; Richard II; Richard III

[2] All’s Well That Ends Well; As You Like It; Comedy of Errors; Love’s Labour’s Lost; Measure for Measure; Merchant of Venice; Merry Wives of Windsor; Midsummer Night’s Dream; Much Ado about Nothing; Taming of the Shrew; The Tempest
Twelfth Night; Two Gentlemen of Verona; The Winter’s Tale.

[3] Antony and Cleopatra; Coriolanus; Cymbeline; Hamlet; Julius Caesar; King Lear; Macbeth; Othello; Romeo and Juliet; Timon of Athens; Titus Andronicus;Troilus and Cressida.

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