The event is the most noteworthy annual event of Clifton High School.
"This week I was privileged to give the Rose Day Address for Clifton High School in the marvellous Cathedral in the City of Bristol. I trained as an actor and lived for several very happy years in Bristol. So it is only natural, and hopefully useful, to draw upon my own experience studying Shakespeare in Bristol for this important presentation to the parents and staff supporting several hundred young people preparing to make their way in the world.
But firstly, just to acknowledge, the last time I was in a church as a student in Bristol I was playing Judas Iscariote in Temple Church as part of my final year performances. Given the character I was playing and his negative relationship with the Church over the past 2000 years I was relieved to be let in to give the speech at all…!
In September 1979, at the age of 18, I arrived in Bristol to begin what would turn out to be three challenging, transformational years at The Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. I was a working class boy from a family of seven children, from Wolverhampton in the West Midlands. I was alone in a strange place having, for the first time in my life, to make decisions totally on my own. I was excited, scared and more than a little overwhelmed. I missed my noisy, interfering and loving family immensely. I still do.
I would like to share with the students of Clifton High School, and in particular the leavers, some thoughts on the very important skill of decision-making. As a framework for what I have to say I will draw from one of the main sources of inspiration and challenge I encountered at The Old Vic: William Shakespeare. In particular I will focus on the ‘To be, or not to be’ soliloquy by the character of Hamlet from the play of the same name.
I only have 15 minutes so, in summary of this, arguably the most popular of Shakespeare's plays, let me give you a brief synopsis. Hamlet, a young Danish Prince prone to procrastination has to make some big decisions during the course of the play. It would be fair to say he is not the best decision maker. He over analyses to the point of inaction. So much so that when he does act he goes to the other extreme and his actions are ill timed, rash and have devastating consequences on his life and the lives of others.
He has a huge burden placed on his young shoulders: his father (Hamlet) has been murdered by his uncle (Claudius) who then soon afterwards marries Hamlet's mother (Gertrude). The ghost of Hamlet (the elder) demands that Hamlet (his son) kills his Uncle (Claudius) to avenge this vile act of betrayal, ambition and murder. In doing so Hamlet sends his girlfriend (Ophelia) mad and she commits suicide by drowning; he kills her revenge seeking brother (Laertes), his two innocent friends (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) and her father (Polonius). But not in that order. He finally kills his Uncle (Claudius) who, in an attempt to murder Hamlet (the younger) with poison kills Gertrude (his new wife) by mistake. A bit of a tragedy. Complicated and on the extremes of reality but sometimes life is a drama. But we don’t need to make it a crisis.
It is in these moments we need to come back to a framework of cold reality and rational thought and remind ourselves of what it is to be human. To consciously decide how to react to the confusion around us rather than being swept along by it.
In this, arguably the most popular speech of his most popular play, Shakespeare explores our shared humanity. In my work as an actor, educator, author and advisor to schools, businesses and communities I draw a great deal from the worlds of Science and Art particularly applied neuropsychology and the performing arts. What I have discovered over the past 35 years is that our survival as a species is dependent on acknowledging and growth of basic human needs.
There are four human needs or drives that are, quite literally, in our DNA. In your time at Clifton High School these same four human needs have been at the heart of your educational journey.
The first need, the need to question, to be curious, to know, is expressed by Hamlet in the very first line his speech:
To be or not to be, that is the question
Whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or take arms against sea of troubles and, by opposing end them.
To die, to sleep, no more.
Hamlet, like us, is victim to the social conventions of his time. He is encouraged to suffer ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ in silence. To put on a brave face. To ‘keep calm and carry on’.
My advice to you, for what it’s worth, is do not stay silent. Decide, today, to speak out. You have a voice. If you have a question to ask, then ask it. It is through questioning and dialogue that we can discover the truths in life that are so often hidden amongst the clutter of social convention and politeness.
Hamlet then ponders the second human need: the need to create and sustain relationships of value and meaning with ourselves, others and the world.
To die, to sleep, no more
and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ‘tis a consummation devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
The respect for and fear of the opinions of others and the future can make our lives a calamity. If we are restrained too much by our concern for what others think and how this will impact our future jobs, relationships and security we run the risk of tip-toeing through life unnoticed and unheard. Shakespeare, through the voice of Hamlet, goes on to list the kinds of people and emotional challenges that will attempt to intimidate, hurt or overwhelm us.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, (contempt)
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin?
A ‘bodkin’ is a small dagger or knife and ‘quietus’ is what would, in Shakespeare’s day, be written on a bill to indicate ‘paid in full’. The symbolism here is to cut us off from a life of pain, disappointment and unfulfilling relationships. Just to pay the bill and go home. What do you need to let go of? What past pain, disappointment and betrayal can you leave behind today? Cut yourself free from this moment? Let it go.
My second offering of advice to you is decide to act with passion and purpose. Do something, every day, that scares you. Stride don’t shuffle through life. Get up in the morning and start your journey afresh. You only need three values to be happy: value yourself, value others and value the place where you are right now.
Hamlet goes on to describe the burden of trying to live a life of value and meaning. He uses the image of a ‘fardel’, a bundle of wood carried on the back, to show this daily challenge to live an authentic life and the fear that can prevent us from doing so. We’ve all had (or will have) times in our lives when we can echo with heartfelt sincerity Hamlet’s words:
Who would these fardels bear?
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
That undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Our desire to predict the outcomes of the future, to demand security when there is none, certainty where it does not exist, is what prevents us discovering what we have to offer to the world. We run the risk, like Hamlet, of thinking too much and acting too little and, in doing so, denying ourselves the rewards of a life of our own creation.
My third offering is choose your pain. There are two kinds: the pain of deciding to engage in a life of curiosity, creativity and confidence or the pain of regretting that you didn’t.
The final need is the need to see the results of our actions. The rewards for the hard work we have put in can be denied us if we allow our overly analytical mind or ‘conscience’, as Shakespeare puts it, to get in the way of that opportunity that could be a step towards our own enlightenment and happiness.
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn away,
And lose the name of action.
I would like to conclude by asking you to remember the many positive lessons you have learnt whilst at Clifton High School. You are important. Your story is one that needs to be told. Your life is one that, if lived well, will send positive ripples of innovation, hope and insight into the world. A world that you cannot imagine at this, the beginning of your adventure. As Ophelia says ‘Lord, we know what we are but know not what we might be.’ Your potential is immense.
So, my final words of advice are: decide to make your passion for life bigger than your fear of it.
Take action every day to release the courage to question, the compassion to build relationships of trust and value, the life-force to engage with the many battles that change and evolution have in store for you and the wisdom to take the knowledge that you have gained over the years at Clifton High School and apply that knowledge wisely to solve the problems of the world.
Decide, every day, to be of service; to be a real friend, to be brave and to be mindful and passionate of your own dreams.
Good luck and thank you for listening".