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Table Talk with Patrick-Spottiswoode

Table Talk with Patrick-Spottiswoode

Issue 5 May / Jun 2004

First featured in issue 5 - May/June 2004

Click here to go to the Issue 5 archives


Patrick Spottiswoode has just had a breakfast of tea and painkillers when we meet – a recurring back injury sustained in a motorcycle accident he was involved in two years ago has chosen this morning to rear its ugly head. However, the diffident charm of the Director of Globe Education does not betray the slightest hint of discomfort, and as he enthuses about the Globe’s Shakespeare & Islam season, the pain no doubt becomes as enigmatic as any enthusiastic English graduate’s interpretation of Shakespearian literature itself.

The Globe Theatre sits proudly on Bankside and the vista from Patrick’s office is only slightly distracting, providing a stunning backdrop across the Strand as we learn how the current season was transformed from an abstract concept into a ground-breaking reality. “We began by wanting to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's Othello but then thought we should take the opportunity to undertake a more wide-ranging theme of Shakespeare and Islam.”

Not that it instantly revealed itself in a flash of genius, in fact Shakespeare and Islam began life as a fledgling oeuvre that grew into a fascinating awarenessraising experience for those involved. “The portrayal of Moors in Elizabethan and Jacobean characters has untold parallels with attitudes towards the ‘other’ prevalent in society today and it is exactly this, alongside the contrasts, that we wanted to explore - the perception of Islam and Islamic lands as was held then, and the way in which it is relevant now.” And how did others within the Globe respond to this proposition? “I went to my colleagues and discussed whether we could do this and they were wonderfully supportive. This potential to introduce non-Muslims to Islam using Shakespeare as the means of reference was very exciting. I suppose we were a little apprehensive at first as to exactly how we could pull it off, because really what we had was a moment of inspiration and there was a long road ahead with many fine details to  research, develop and structure in order to create what eventually became the Shakespeare and Islam season.”

The seemingly daunting task of bridging Islam with Shakespeare was made infinitely less so by the co-operation and assistance Patrick received from the Muslim community. “I knew I needed help with the project as it was a previously un-ventured angle on Shakespeare for the Globe so I approached members of the Muslim community to see how the idea would be received. I needed to gage whether the necessary enthusiasm and support that would be the life-source, the heart and lungs of the project, was out there among Muslims in order to make the Shakespeare and Islam season a success. It was almost as soon as I began speaking to people who were all so very helpful and full of ideas and suggestions, that I became convinced that yes, we absolutely must unearth the hidden depths that will serve to enrich our understanding of Shakespeare within an Islamic framework.”

Patrick turned to Iqbal Sacranie and Dr Bari of the Muslim Council of Britain as his starting point, “I had no idea how they would react to the idea of bringing Shakespeare and Islam together as a theme for a year's work. Their response was immediately positive and they helped to introduce me to various people who might contribute to the project. If one person was unable to help they would come up with the name of someone who they thought would and so on. It wasn’t long before I felt I had been welcomed into a close-knit and resourceful network of Muslims.”

He also consulted a diverse spectrum of prominent figures within the Muslim community including His Excellency Mohammed Belmahi, Ambassador of HM the King of Morocco and Luqman Ali, Director of Khayaal Theatre. “Luqman and I have so many meetings and he has proved invaluable in nurturing the Shakespeare and Islam initiative and bringing it to fruition. His knowledge of Islam and his passion for theatre makes him an ideal partner for educational projects in schools. We are planning to create a Souk at the Globe during Islam Awareness Week in September and the Khayaal Theatre Company will contribute tales from six Islamic lands.” Patrick does not pretend to be an expert on Islam and seeks the advice of people such as Luqman and Dr Jamil Sherif to highlight religious sensitivities that he may not otherwise have been aware of. “When we launched the season it was Luqman and Jamil who helped to arrange the provision of an area for those who wished to offer dusk prayers – something that before Shakespeare and Islam I would have been quite oblivious to. It has been an insightful learning curve which has added to my personal understanding of Islam.”

There have been moments when, as he himself puts it, he has made, “terrible gaffes! For example I was at an event and I went to greet a hijab-wearing Muslim lady who had given wonderful advice about the season. In the theatrical world of course it is all ‘luvvie’ kisses when we meet and I went to give her a greatly appreciative and theatrical hug and I can still remember the look of horror on her face as she recoiled and sprung away! I was absolutely mortified that I had offended her but after her initial shock she was incredibly gracious and took me aside and explained that it is perhaps best not to hug a Muslim member of the opposite sex and although some Muslims are happy to shake hands with the opposite sex, others aren’t and so I must remember to only shake the hand of a Muslim woman who offers her mine and so forth!”

Patrick is keenly aware of the symbolism such a project holds and the warmth with which the Muslim community have embraced it, “We have in the Globe Theatre an institution that is, rightly or wrongly, perceived by some to be essentially English, perhaps even a bastion of Britishness. Shakespeare resides at the very core of English literary heritage and all this means there is something immensely fulfilling about celebrating the Islamic frissons of this very English icon.”

Lectures, courses, workshops and plays comprise the Shakespeare and Islam series of events as Elizabethan and Jacobean enthusiasts are led along a journey that transposes the view through the prism of characters from Muslim lands. Equally significant is the school project inviting students from eight primary schools drawn from Westminster, Tower Hamlets and Southwark, to explore the significance of the handkerchief, ‘spotted with strawberries’ that Othello gives to Desdemona which she subsequently loses, along with her life. “Symbolism is woven into the handkerchief in the play. It was an important accessory in Islamic Lands. Sultans were buried with magnificent handkerchiefs, Queen Elizabeth I was sent one as a gift by a Sultan's mother.” Children will be designing new handkerchiefs as, “tokens of love and peace”. Patrick is planning a further handkerchief of peace project for schools this autumn which he hopes will create the unprecedented situation of, “making Islam relevant to Shakespeare, and making Shakespeare relevant to the Muslim student.”

The greatest challenge Patrick now faces is finding a way to ensure that once the Islam and Shakespeare season ends, the vision does not fade. “The season is proving powerful and enlightening for Muslims and non-Muslims alike and I hope that even when the season comes to a close, Shakespeare and Islam will continue to inform our work.” The difficulty lies in turning this into a reality. “I am constantly inviting people within the Muslim community to send me their ideas and suggestions for projects that will carry on the spirit of Shakespeare and Islam beyond the spring. We have held think-tanks to brainstorm events for this autumn's programme and to help celebrate Islam Awareness Week. Giving a Muslim youngster a sense that Shakespeare is part of his or her heritage and creating awareness among non-Muslims of the role Islam plays in the jewel of our literary legacy is a reason to celebrate, particularly during these divisive times. How do we go about doing this though, well let me allow your readers to take centre stage and answer that question for me. I urge your readers to send in suggestions of what they would be interested in attending at the Globe.”

If you wish to find out more about Globe Education or have any comments to make about Shakespeare and Islam, please contact Patrick Spottiswoode at or by visiting

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