20 JUNE 2014

Dr David James

Dr David James teaches English Literature at Wellington College, where he is Director of IB. He was Head of English for five years at Haileybury College. He has authored student study guides,and teacher resources, and has written on a range of educational matters for newspapers and journals.

When did you first encounter Shakespeare?

Like most people, I encountered Shakespeare at school: we studied MacbethRomeo and JulietThe Merchant of Venice and lots of sonnets.  My head told us all – repeatedly – that in the league table of writers Shakespeare was number 1 (followed, in this order, by Milton and Keats).  As I have grown older I found that he was wrong about a number of things, but I can’t disagree with his choice of champion writer. He remains, for me, number one.

What's your favourite play and why?

Macbeth remains my favourite play: it covers so much, has lots of action, wonderful speeches, and two central characters who remain absolutely fascinating.  Perhaps linked to my love of this play is that I always enjoy teaching it, and it lends itself so easily to all age groups, and all ability ranges.

What's your favourite moment in Shakespeare?

There are so many, but perhaps the conversation Emilia has with Desdamona, in Othello, about men, is astonishing: the world-weary Emilia tells Desdamona what she thinks about men, and it is not without criticism  but, she says, because of how society is structured, women learn from men, good and bad.

Let husbands know

Their wives have sense like them: they see and smell

And have their palates both for sweet and sour,

As husbands have. What is it that they do

When they change us for others? Is it sport?

I think it is: and doth affection breed it?

I think it doth: is't frailty that thus errs?

It is so too: and have not we affections,

Desires for sport, and frailty, as men have?

Then let them use us well: else let them know,

The ills we do, their ills instruct us so. 

And your favourite quote?

It could be the one above, but it is probably this one, from The Tempest:

'Our revels now are ended'

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,

As I foretold you, were all spirits and

Are melted into air, into thin air:

And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,

The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,

The solemn temples, the great globe itself,

Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve

And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,

Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff

As dreams are made on, and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.

(William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act 4 Scene 1)

Why is Shakespeare so important?

It is difficult to answer this without resorting to cliché, but he tells us so much about this country, our shared culture, the possibilities of language, and imagination.  He understood men and women, children and gods.  His words are profoundly moving.  Importantly, though, his plays are hugely enjoyable.  He’s fun.

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