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Shakespeare is relevant every time

This article is over 17 years, 7 months old
Michael Rosen, the writer and poet, has written a new book about the playwright William Shakespeare. He spoke to Socialist Worker about why people shouldn't be put off Shakespeare's plays
Issue 1907

Why did you think it was important to write the book William Shakespeare: In His Times, For Our Times?

It is very easy to overlook the fact that Shakespeare is highly political, and that his plays were written at a time of huge change and upheaval. The way we are taught Shakespeare is too often loaded towards the idea that his plays are about supposedly unchanging things, like love or ambition or treachery.

What I’ve tried to do is put the plays into the time they were written so that we can see more clearly how they are relevant today. So in the book I look at plays quite familiar to people-Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, Twelfth Night, Coriolanus.

But I also look at the historical period, what kinds of social classes there were, what kind of outlooks these social classes had, and what kind of change they were all going through. Then I relate these back to the plays.

Why are so many people put off Shakespeare at school?

Usually it’s because the focus is on the language, and less on the drama and the idea of the plays. You can only get to them through putting them on and talking about them. Sitting in on a live production is a special experience too. Our culture in schools and outside is very good at chopping Shakespeare into little digestible bits. The problem with that is you don’t get the full debate that goes on in a play.

Plays are more often than not debates about things, with the characters expressing outlooks in that debate. You can see the relevance of Shakepeare’s plays today.

King Lear is a wonderful picture of how ruthless, careerist people will try to destroy the world for their own benefit. In Hamlet we see the struggle of someone face to face with a ruthless tyranny trying to overcome it but without the collective power to do it.

Did you enjoy writing the book?

I loved it. I won’t say it was revenge exactly, but it was almost like a way of getting back at all the misleading books that had sent me down blind alleys over Shakespeare. I had never really attached the plays fully to the social context they came from.

I was very lucky to have had good teaching. However, it was always concentrating on the poetics, which is not in itself bad, but drains Shakespeare of the politics.

There is no point in denying the language in Shakespeare is problematic. You have to help yourself a little, that’s the way I think about it. Good editions of the plays, if you feel like reading them, will always explain some of the difficult phrases. But a good production of the play will make clear, much clearer than the way they tried to teach it to us, the action and the thought about the action.

Will you be talking about this at the Marxism festival next month?

Yes. I’ll speak on the book on Shakespeare, and also I’ll be speaking on the poetry of resistance. I’m going to do a half-performance, half-talk about resistance poetry down through the years.

I love the Marxism event. I get a rejuvenation of Marxist ideas that you can’t find anywhere else at all.

William Shakespeare: In His Times, For Our Times by Michael Rosen is part of the Revolutionary Portraits series. It is available from 9 July from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, for £5.99. You can order your copy now by going to or phoning 020 7636 1848. Michael Rosen will be speaking on Shakespeare at Marxism 2004 on Thursday 15 July at 7pm.

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