By John Hudson
Special to the Clyde Fitch Report
For 200 years, some of the smartest literary researchers have worked on understanding the plays attributed to William Shakespeare, the western world’s greatest genius. Now, suddenly, some of that work has begun to yield fascinating new results. Could the applied narrative and problem-solving techniques developed to solve the world’s greatest literary question have practical applicability in addressing other issues, such as the lack of agile problem-solving skills in the modern workforce?
Becoming Better Witted: Plays as Problem-Solving
One purpose of the Shakespearean plays, we are told in the preface to Troilus and Cressida, is that after seeing them on stage, people should depart “better witted than they came.” We are also told in the First Folio preface to the Great Variety of Readers that to fully “understand” the plays we need not to see them repeatedly on stage, but must read them “again and again.” Watching a play in performance would mostly have been a pleasurable, entertaining experience, as we know from contemporary accounts. Not even the “wiser sort,” as contemporary poet and scholar Gabriel Harvey called them would be able to cognitively “understand” a play while the actors were reciting it at 200 words — eight lines — a minute.
Almost every minute there would be a musical and Biblical allusion; every few minutes some other literary or classical allusion. All of it had to be integrated and interrelated. Even for Elizabethans, with their sophisticated memory skills, the speed and flexibility required to do this in real time would have been humanly impossible. Nobody could have caught every allusion and put it all together. But even the attempt at doing so could perhaps make one “better witted” as a kind of brain exercise — a more advanced example of what recent studies suggest can improve brain functioning.
So, one under-appreciated, highly significant value of Shakespeare’s plays is not simply as passive entertainment but as highly complex, multi-layered works designed to engage an audience as a kind of literary puzzle or sophisticated brainteaser, set in different kinds of environments. Certainly at court, where many of the plays were performed, there was a constant competition about who could best “decipher the figure” of an allegory or solve an anagram. Like other pageantry, Shakespeare’s plays presented intellectual challenges. This is not an aspect of the plays that gets much attention in theaters today. Solving the puzzles contained in the plays today requires a sophisticated process of literary analysis. Merging it with a new kind of performance designed to promote critical thinking and problem-solving.
Skills in Critical Thinking and Advanced Literacy
The value of such skills is becoming increasingly important: stimulating creativity among employees is a significant challenge for many companies. Speed, flexibility and adaptability to change is now ranked number three in CEO top challenges. Unfortunately, these are not areas in which the workforce is strong. According to a report on 21st century skills, three-fourths of American high school entrants are deficient in critical thinking and problem-solving. Half are deficient in innovation and creativity. The modern labor force also is increasingly reliant on advanced literacy. Indeed, a new Canadian study shows that investing in advanced literacy is the single most important tool for stimulating economic growth. In the U.S., unfortunately, the recent National Assessment of Adult Literacy report showed that the proportion of those who are “proficient” in document and prose literacy has declined from 15% in 1992 to 13% in 2002. It will likely continue to decline further unless remedial action is taken. Studies have also shown that 79% of the population believe that imagination is key to innovation, and 90% believe that the arts are essential in building imagination, but the majority think American schools are doing less than other countries to develop this capacity.
During the Elizabethan Renaissance, creativity, problem-solving ability, cognitive flexibility and sophisticated literary understanding were critical skills for stimulating entrepreneurship and the exploration of new lands. It was no coincidence that this coincided with a period of growth in Elizabethan drama, since dramatic arts improve creative skills — they nurture the ability to handle complexity, to integrate knowledge across multiple areas, to articulate new understandings.
More than any other dramatist, the works of Shakespeare offer a particularly important way of developing those skills. One might expect that applied drama (especially applied Shakespeare) would be sought out by corporations to develop greater skills in their workforce — and valued by city officials to promote the skills necessary for fiscal growth.
Applied Shakespeare as Management Tool
As Peter Brown noted in his article ‘Can Shakespeare really be a useful management tool?’, most consultancies that have attempted to use Shakespeare’s plays for business applications have not done so very effectively — perhaps because aspects of the model they were using were inappropriate. That, however, may be set to change. For the last couple of years, I have been part of a network of knowledge management and strategy consultants; we are developing the latest dramatic and narrative approaches to the plays into new methodologies designed to increase advanced literacy, creativity, improve the management of complexity, problem-solving and cognitive flexibility.
So for instance our current production, which opens on Sept. 5, of the Virgin Mary allegories in Shakespeare’s plays, has been specifically designed to overturn existing assumptions and promote creative thinking and innovative questioning of established models. One way it does this is by inter-relating texts that are not normally conjoined, and using the play itself — which, downstairs at Manhattan Theatre Source, will be a site-specific production on two alternating stages, each with parallel casts — to link them together. By borrowing modern media storytelling techniques, we are able to deconstruct the underlying thought structures and assumptions across these 400-year-old plays. This exercise in applied theater will then stimulate a process of self-reflection on the narrative structures that we all inhabit.
A number of actors have already trained in this new approach — with surprisingly beneficial results. In the fall, starting with a workshop at Eastern Connecticut State University, this new approach will be offered to partner colleges, schools and companies. Seemingly, techniques of managing a complex organizational knowledge structure are somewhat similar to the skills required to envision the dynamics between 1,200 different characters across 40 different plays and to transform it into performance. In the future, perhaps, applied narrative diagnostics and dramatic simulation techniques will one day become routine as a key training tool for corporations struggling to comprehend the increasing complexity of the modern world.
John Hudson is a strategic consultant who specializes in new industry models and has helped create several telecoms and Internet companies. He has recently been consulting to a leading think tank on the future of the theater industry and is pioneering an innovative Shakespeare theory, as dramaturge to the Dark Lady Players. This fall he will be Artist in Residence at Eastern Connecticut State University. He has degrees in Theater and Shakespeare, in Management, and in Social Science.