Is Shakespeare in our DNA?

Guest blogger, Professor Martin Maiden, writes…

During my career as a microbiologist I have seen the molecule that I have spent much of my time working on, DNA, become part of popular culture. Phrases such as so-and-so “is in my DNA” are now frequently used and perhaps, sometimes, even vaguely understood.  Although many press announcements describing a “gene for…” are greatly oversimplified, we are increasingly aware of the importance of genetics and inheritance in complex human behaviours and it is fun, as long as we don’t take it too seriously, to speculate on the relationships of nature and nurture in our ability to produce and appreciate art.

If there were a “gene for” appreciating Shakespeare, I would be a good candidate to have inherited it.  Both my parents were great Shakespeare enthusiasts despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that their formal education ended in their early teenage. They went to Stratford-upon-Avon to visit the Shakespeare memorial theatre for their honeymoon, and I grew up with our copy of the complete works and a plaster copy of the Stratford statue prominent household possessions.

In the fullness of time, the whole family went on holiday to Stratford to visit the theatre – the first plays I saw there (standing) were King John and Richard II.  The later astonishment of the head of drama at my secondary modern school underlined that this was not a normal school holiday activity.

I was hooked from that time on – I even carried around a copy of the Sonnets (purchased, of course, in Stratford) for a number of years although, the apocryphal act of parliament never having been passed, I read them less often than I aspired to. With my own children approaching teenage, I naturally want them to enjoy Shakespeare too, but am sceptical that I shall be as successful as my parents in passing on my enthusiasm. If there really were a “gene for” this then I wouldn’t have to worry, of course, but perhaps my confidence in genetic determinism, at least for my own children, is not that strong…

I still find Shakespeare’s wide appeal, across time and cultures, remarkable and intriguing. A particular combination of human genes, placed in the environment of late Elizabethan England, resulted in an individual who not only had a remarkable understanding of the emotions and motivations of other, but who was also capable of using the English language to convey those feelings to an audience.

My own enjoyment of the plays is rooted in the reality of his characters: the people who inhabit his plays are the neighbour, the colleague, the person you meet in the supermarket.  Although living at a time when scientific knowledge was rudimentary, Shakespeare accurately observed and described the diversity of feelings and behaviours of human beings in a way that shall remain relevant for as long as our species continues to exist. In the sense of how we are constituted, for me, Shakespeare really does get inside “our DNA”.

Professor Martin Maiden
University of Oxford