Since William Shakespeare’s death 400 years ago this month, all manner of reactionaries have claimed his plays as their own.
The City of London Corporation, a body that significantly predates Shakespeare, is putting on a whole festival embarrassingly called “Shakespeare Woz Ere”.
The plays put on at the Globe theatre were a form of popular entertainment, with plenty of sex and slapstick to please the audience.
Nor is the language that old fashioned and inaccessible.
It’s thanks to Shakespeare that we now have phrases such as “bated breath” and “dead as a doornail”.
Shakespeare’s influence is real, but that’s not because literature, language or art are timeless fossils.
Far from being a period of Elizabethan respectability, Shakespeare’s time was one of war, revolution and great social upheaval.
Elizabeth, the last Tudor monarch, was facing crisis as the old order couldn’t adapt to the transition from feudalism to capitalism
This influenced a generation of writers such as the brilliant Christopher “Kit” Marlow who was condemned for arguing that “religion was only to keep men in awe”.
Both Marlow and this tumult had a big impact on Shakespeare.
One of Shakespeare’s strengths was exploring different characters’ class positions.
The Merchant of Venice is often taught as a battle between Jews and Christians.
Venice was a hub of early capitalism and the play describes the class tensions that are beginning.
In the play, the up and coming Bassanio borrows money from his merchant friend Antonio in order to get under the sheets with the aristocratic Portia.
While merchants’ wealth was rising at this time, the landed aristocracy still had the upper hand.
So Antonio goes to the Jewish money lender Shylock to get the rest of the cash, but instead of demanding interest the potential debt is a “pound of flesh”.
Meanwhile, Shylock’s daughter and Bassanio’s Christian friend elope.
Then after Antonio loses his money, a furious Shylock demands his pound, but has to give up because the deal didn’t include blood.
Portia, posing as Antonio’s lawyer, reminds Shylock that he is an “alien” and can now be stripped of everything.
This is where Shylock’s powerful speech comes from.
“If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” he asks.
At that time the Church forbade lending money for interest, which was increasingly at odds with the new rising class.
So the play is more than a fable.
It tells the story of antisemitism and the struggle for class power during the rise of capitalism.
When seen in this light, Shakespeare is anything but a Elizabethan court bard talking in outdated tongues.
Arnold Wesker, 1932-2016
Arnold Wesker, who died last week, was a cutting edge playwright. He displayed an autobiographical slice of working class British life that had previously been ignored.
In Chicken Soup with Barley, he traced the disintegration of a Jewish family through the turbulent 1930s and 1940s. It is about fighting fascist Oswald Mosley, communism and Jewish East End life.
Wesker was born in Stepney, east London, in 1932. His father Joseph and mother Leah, Jewish migrants from Hungary and Russia, were members of the Communist Party. He wrote, “I enjoyed all the gatherings—the May Day demos, being carried shoulder-high through Hyde Park, all the banners.”
Twice he passed auditions for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, but failed to get a grant. Instead, he became a furniture maker’s apprentice.
The Kitchen and Chips with Everything reflected the decade he spent working as a plumber and hotel porter —“job to job to National Service to job to job”, as he put it. The world of work didn’t often appear on the stage. Wesker put it there.
In Chips with Everything, a middle class rebel encourages revolt only to be drawn ever closer to his rightful class position.
Wesker’s writing never made him rich and he lived on his overdraft. His plays were not made into films.
But they then became regarded as period pieces, recalled more for their part in Britain’s postwar literary revival than for anything else.
Railing against the cliche of 50s and 60s Angry Young Men’s kitchen sink drama, Wesker said he had been a happy young man but had grown into an angry old one.
One character in Chicken Soup with Barley said, “You can’t alter people. You can only give them some love and hope they’ll take it.”