Shakespeare and the Quest for a Golden Age


Shakespeare’s contemporary Pietro da Cortona The Golden Age

Arthur Golding’s translation of Ovid’sMetamorphosis (1565) has this wonderful description of the four ages of man on earth: the golden age, the silver age, the brazen age and the iron age. The golden age – as here described- is a wonderful period in which humans lived in harmony with each other (needing no rule of law) and with the earth itself. The earth was abundant, without the need of artificial fertilizers: “And men themselves, contented well with plain and simple food… Did live by raspis, hips, and haws, by cornels (raspberries), plums and cherries/ By sloes and apples, nuts and pears…”. A truly golden age in which the divine beams of the sun irradiated all: “Then streams ran milk, then streams ran wine and yellow honey flowed/ From each green tree whereon the rays of fiery Phoebus glowed.”  In dramatic contrast the iron age is filled with internecine warfare, in which born brothers, wives and husbands, children and parents fight with each other over material possessions in a landscape that has been denuded of all natural goodness due to overwhelming greed. Golding’s description of the iron age, not only describes well the Elizabethan age, but our own age as well!


The Ages of Man

Shakespeare -as I see him- is someone who in play after play tackles the features of the iron-age head-on and uses all the powers of his creative art to challenge and transform the inevitable outcomes of the tragedies that humans bring on themselves through greed, jealousy and a lack of deep respect for creation in all its forms. I see Shakespeare as a kind of magician who uses his poetry and drama as a kind of tool of transformation. In the great tragedies where nearly everyone ends up dying on stage (King Lear, Othello, Hamlet…), there is usually a final speech by an observer of the events warning the audience that such an outcome could be theirs unless they have learned the lessons presented. The great comedies (As You Like It, The Tempest…) all begin with feuding families (often brothers) and gradually move towards a reconciliation, a sense of wonderful harmony which is created through the magic of Shakespeare’s poetry and dramatic art. Tragedy or comedy, one cannot leave Shakespeare’s theatre without a sense that in some way or other “I must change my life!” At the centre of Shakespeare’s imagination are his powerful insights into what triggers negative emotions and his amazing optimism about how the imagination- filtered through words, images and above all music- can transform negative into positive. Shakespeare is the greatest magician, able to transform consciousness and in so doing,  helping to transform the world.

Enough said: your job now is to study, read, enjoy every phrase, every image, every word selected and penned by this great master of the English language! On Tuesday next we all go to see John Bell performing Jaques (squeeze a jay) in As You Like It at the Sydney Opera House. On campus students will be sitting next to students from Mission Australia in seats donated through the “Hearts in a Row” program by Sydney Businesses.

So… Blog topics for this week:


1/ Using Golding’s description of the iron age as a starting point, write a paragraph in prose or poetry that catalogues the ways in which the modern world (21st century) is still an example of the characteristics of the iron age.

2/ What would be a golden age for people living in the 21st century? Can you imagine what some of its components might be.


3/ Can art/ literature/ poetry/ drama have a transformative effect on human consciousness? Are the claims I have made above far fetched? Is there anything in your experience of the arts that could support this idea, or is it just too fanciful. Write a short paragraph on this topic.

4/ Write a review of the performance by Bell Shakespeare of As You Like It.  Pay particular attention to the casting of the characters: eg Does John Bell suit perfectly the role of Jacques (squeeze a Jay) as you understand him?


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