This 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.
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.
‘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?