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Things I Thought About Before I Watched ‘Shakespeare Lives!’

Shakespeare FireworksThis year, the world is going Shakespeare-mad. Or, at least, that’s what British tourism companies and theatre troupes the world over are hoping as we mark four hundred years since the Bard shuffled off this mortal coil, and about four hundred and fifteen years since he wrote the phrase “shuffled off this moral coil”. Last Saturday, the 23rd of April, was the official date, which by all accounts was met with the kind of enthusiasm usually reserved for football matches or the final episode of The Great British Bake-Off.

In Stratford-upon-Avon, the Royal Shakespeare Company held a two-hour event to celebrate the work of Britain’s best-known playwright. As I settled in to watch a show which featured British theatre royalty (and, indeed, some actual royalty too), I began thinking about the way that Shakespeare has settled into our collective understanding of literature, culture, and art.

I found myself wondering: why all this pomp and circumstance? Why all this, for want of a better term, fuss? What is so special about Shakespeare that he has had such a profound affect on our art and culture since the 1600s?

On the face of it, the story of Shakespeare – the son of a country glovemaker, without a university degree or a massive fortune – coming into fame as a writer of plays in the big city is a wonderfully romantic story. Shakespeare seems to prove that anyone can aspire to immortality, no matter their beginnings. A Horrible Histories special that the BBC released to coincide with the anniversary celebrations teaches children that Shakespeare was a prudent, moderate worker, a family man who was smart with his finances, and a sharp contrast to the hard-drinking, hard-fighting numbskulls that were his contemporary rivals in the playwrighting game. It’s a nice message for the kids, sure, but perhaps a little too naively optimistic, especially on the alcohol front (there’s some speculation that Shakespeare died after a particularly rowdy night at the pub).

Nevertheless, I like this approach to Shakespeare. All too often, what you find at the heart of the Shakespeare mythology is a cult of genius that upholds old Bill as an indisputable genius, a chronicler of the human condition, a true universal. Shakespeare is timeless, sacrosanct. To be considered a ‘Shakespearean actor’ is the highest of honours, and to be able to read and understand Shakespeare’s work is the height of sophistication. Never mind that about forty per cent of the text, once you do understand it, is dick jokes. At least the depiction of Shakespeare as a guy who kept his nose to the grindstone is a little more encouraging: anybody can be Shakespeare if they work hard enough. You don’t have to be born a genius.

It wasn’t always this way; in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Shakespeare plays were often forgotten, or, even worse, re-written. In case you’re wondering, that weird noise you just heard was the collective horrified intake of breath from every literature snob on the face of the earth as they contemplate the bowdlerisation and destruction of such sacred pieces of literature.

I’ve always tried to embrace Shakespeare, but it’s always been with a secret reservation at the back of my mind, an aggressive, in-built rebelliousness that is suspicious of anything that too many people have said is good. There’s always a part of me that wonders, whenever I think about Shakespeare, whether he is truly as great as people claim, or whether a little bit of it isn’t just hype, of the kind we witnessed with The Da Vinci Code, paleo diets, and the entire oeuvre of The Black Eyed Peas.

10 Things I Hate About You Fire
A visual representation of what I’m doing right about now. (Image Source)

I have favourites among the Shakespeare plays; and, of course, there are some that I struggled with too much to truly appreciate just yet. There are some speeches in his plays that blow me over with their beauty and profundity, and there are others that leave me wondering whether shelling out $50 for the complete annotated Norton Student Shakespeare in my first year of university was really worth it. My relationship with Shakespeare is complicated, and it is tense. I think he is an excellent writer, but I’m wary of the kind of totalising attitude that seeks to elevate one person so high above the rest that they become untouchable, unquestionable.

What criteria should we use to judge the work of authors? How do we decide which writer is ‘the best’? Can we really point to just one person and say that they are THE GREATEST? Is it not a little dangerous to assume universality in any text, given that every text is written within a specific historical and personal context, and reinterpreted differently by each reader? Shakespeare’s work remains meaningful today, that’s indisputable, but only inasmuch as we, his readers, continuously redefine that meaning in relation to ourselves.

Having said all this, however, I should probably add a final comment to ensure that I’m not instantly blacklisted by every literature fan out there: I love all the pomp and ceremony that is going on around Shakespeare this year. I really do. I love the fact that people are emerging in droves to celebrate literature, and the individuals who contributed to that body of literature. I love that people are getting exciting about writers. I love the idea that four hundred years on, the work of a particular individual can still have a profound affect on thousands upon thousands of people, that individuals are creating new meanings by using those works in highly imaginative and creative ways.

Dench Hamlet the Dame
“It is I, Hamlet the Dame”: a playful take on the famous character.

‘Shakespeare Live(s)!’ is an apt title for an event which celebrated Shakespeare through the work of contemporary artists. What struck me, in seeing the joy with which favourite actors and acts were greeted with, however, was the extent to which Shakespeare came alive for the audience through their love of contemporary artists: they weren’t cheering for Hamlet, for example. They cheered for Dame Judi Dench, Sir Ian McKellen, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paapa Essiedu. Their love for these figures translated into a love for Shakespeare’s work, but it was a love that was dependant on the talent and reputation of these living actors. Perhaps Shakespeare Lives because, rather paradoxically, he is dead: the man is gone, leaving us only with texts to which our contemporaries can apply their own prodigious talents, and to which we, as readers and viewers, respond and make new meanings. Can we really claim, then, that Shakespeare is the greatest English writer in history? Leaving aside all other considerations, my sense is that sometimes, in reflecting on the ‘greatness’ of Shakespeare, what we actually see is something rather different: our own greatness reflected back at us.

What’s your opinion of Shakespeare? How do you feel about the idea that he is the greatest English writer?

7 replies on “Things I Thought About Before I Watched ‘Shakespeare Lives!’”

I like Shakespeare. A lot. Admittedly because prick and butt jokes (or pricked butt jokes) make up 40% of his plays. But also because it sparks curiosity in me. I’ve spent hours outside of school reading his plays and deciphering his archaic language and saucy double entendres. It’s like a puzzle, and figuring it out is satisfying. Oh, he also had a few “yo’ mama” jokes, which are funny. To the American audience at least. I mean, MTV had a most unfortunate television series called “Yo Mama!”, which was basically a joke duel on behalf of each opponent’s…well…Mama.

I think I also have a sentimental attachment to him. There is a Shakespeare Festival that my hometown puts on every year. (hometown is a word used loosely here because I moved around a lot in my youth, but it is a word I use to describe the city in which I lived between the years of 18 and 25). The festival coincides with my birthday, so tickets to the performances have bee my birthday presents the past couple of years. My favorite performance so far has been Richard III. I never thought I would be a fan of Shakespeare’s histories, but as it turns out, it turned me into a total sucker for the War of the Roses. And, as much as I like to read Shakespeare, watching it performed live is even better. To see a troupes adaptation of text that is a few hundred years old in interesting. I never understood how funny Shakespeare plays could be until watching live performances. The theater is always filled with laughter, even during tragedies.

As for whether he was the best English writer? I don’t know. I’m American and in all honesty, my experience with English writers is pretty limited. He is one of the few English writers taught in American high schools. (Actually, he may be the only English writer taught in American high schools [unless you take an AP English course; then, you might be introduced to ye olde literature like Beowulf, plays by Alexander Pope, and some poems by William Blake]). And unless you study literature in college, you may not be introduced to an English writer again unless you explore them yourself. I did take a British lit. course that explored romantic and modern literature. My preference was romantic literature because nature and innocence was more appealing to me at the time.

In the end though, I guess I don’t know what it is about Shakespeare that is so captivating. He is a bit of an enigma is modern culture. But, you’re last thought has me thinking (and correct me if I’m misunderstanding you), maybe Shakespeare just has this impossible way of capturing the human condition (as freaking cliche as that sounds!) so consistently in his body of work. His plays are about… growth and aspiration, conflict and mortality… and while sometimes that leads to our downfall, it sometimes that leads us to great things too. How can we not appreciate that?

It’s really interesting to hear the American perspective on Shakespeare! I grew up in Australia, so our school English classes were still very reliant on the British tradition, and Shakespeare is obviously taught as the Great Genius at the heart of the Great Tradition. Perhaps my suspicion of the cult of genius stems from my school days, because even though I liked Shakespeare and did well when it came to my Shakespeare assignments, I was always naturally suspicious of the idea of always literary canon and ‘required reading’.

I definitely agree that Shakespeare is a very different experience when he’s performed, which I think is the case with all plays – at the end of the day, they’re designed to be performed and experienced in real time, and in a collective setting rather than silently on one’s own. I feel like in some ways we’re rewriting Shakespeare every time we perform him, or each time we, as an audience, reinterpret his plays, taking the themes he deals with in the plays (eg conflict and mortality) and figuring out how those themes are relevant to our particular moment in time, and our own individual experiences.

I rarely feel it’s useful to categorize anyone as “the greatest” anything, since different people are trying completely different things and it’s apples-to-oranges which one is succeeding the most best at the really specific thing they’re trying to do. But I do love Shakespeare. My mum started showing us Shakespeare plays when we were quite little, so I never felt he was unattainable. And as I’ve gotten older, I’ve just gotten fonder of him, even though of course I do recognize his flaws. Plus of course, he’s so woven into the fabric of English-language literature that it’s hard to escape his influence — we keep magnifying him in our stories, and it keeps him important over all these different generations with changing tastes.

I agree, with any literary text (any text, indeed) it is a little bit of an apples-and-oranges thing. That’s definitely a major concern for me.

I think my personal view of Shakespeare is similar to yours – I do love reading his plays, but I also acknowledge that there are flaws, that there are some things Shakespeare can’t do that other texts can. :)

I’m not enough of an expert to really provide any useful conversation in relation to this post, but I don’t think it would be correct to call him the greatest English writer. I don’t think that’s a title that could ever be given to one person as both time and literature are so vast.
But I would say that he’s the English writer that has had the greatest influence, particularly in terms of his impact on the English language in general.

Shakespeare Live! is showing at the cinema here next week – would you recommend watching it? It looks like it would be fun.

I agree, it’s definitely problematic to label anyone ‘the greatest’. Shakespeare has definitely had a huge influence on the literature that’s come after him, although it’s interesting to see the extent to which he was, in turn, greatly influenced by other writers – classical poets are a huge influence on his work, and the majority of his plots are lifted from medieval and early modern sources.

I enjoyed Shakespeare Live!, although the quality of the acts varied greatly. There were definitely some really great ones (the Hamlet sketch alone is worth it!). And if you like Doctor Who, David Tennant and Catherine Tate are the hosts, which is quite exciting. I think it might be quite fun to watch in a public space like a cinema, rather than at home on your laptop, as I did. :)

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