Should we care? Isn’t Shakespeare just the preserve of the pretentious literati who get a kick out of saying they like stuff that most people struggle to understand?
That’s certainly what I used to think. I used to agree with Blackadder, who, in a great scene in Blackadder: Back & Forth, castigates Shakespeare (played by the pointless Colin Firth, in his perfect role sitting quietly on the ground getting kicked) for inflicting boredom on generations of schoolchildren. Blackadder sums up a typical Shakespearean scene: “Oh look here comes Othello, talking total crap as usual.”
The message to children is often: Eat your greens and swallow a lump of Shakespeare. This attitude is underpinned by something more pernicious: elitism. Shakespeare is placed on the tallest pedestal, the highest of “high art”.
This view was given a theoretical justification in the 1970s by the American literary critic Harold Bloom. Bloom argued that important writers could be charted in a kind of family tree. Authors try to break decisively from their literary forefathers (cue Freud) and this “anxiety of influence” can be read in their writing.
Bloom distinguishes between “weak” and “strong” poets, based on their success in carving out an original style in response to their precursors. Armed with this formula, Bloom produced an especially rigid literary canon of great authors, whose successive influence can be traced from one to another – Milton led to the Romantics, Conrad led to Eliot and so on.
At the top of this pyramid is Shakespeare, whose works exhibit no influence. His plays emerged like the world from god’s mind, pristine and untouched by the influence of lesser writers.
This is complete garbage. But by theorising the “high art/low art” dichotomy in the most mechanical way, Bloom highlighted the dangers inherent in widespread assumptions about Shakespeare.
Shakespeare was actually a literary magpie: he nicked almost every story and subplot from other sources, but in doing so he changed them drastically, seeing complexity where others saw only stereotypes.
It could hardly be more ironic that Shakespeare’s plays are considered “high art”. They’re crammed full of pissing, farting, all the elements of farce, mime, cross-dressing, people turning into animals, bad jokes, sex jokes and especially bad sex jokes. It seems a great shame to lose sight of this chaotic bawdiness in favour of the soaring rhetoric. For me, the joy of Shakespeare is in the clashing combinations of the sublime and the ridiculous.
Theatre was the most popular mass entertainment in Shakespeare’s time. Holding about 3,000 spectators, the Globe Theatre was more popular than the local bear-baiting arenas and brothels of Southwark. The Globe mirrored early modern society, with the audience physically divided along class lines. The plays constantly look in two directions: they had to entertain the “groundlings”, but also appeal to the prejudices of the upper classes.
Shakespeare’s most consistent theme is whether, and how, authoritarian leadership can be considered legitimate. To what extent does a king have to take account of the different classes in society – the nobility, the peasants, the aspiring merchants and so on?
So he writes about the failure of the out of touch Richard II and the arrogant Coriolanus, as well as the success of the puppeteer-like Duke Vincentio and the cunning populist Prince Hal. Hal, who becomes Henry V, thinks kingship is like a performance or a costume, calling it “this gorgeous garment, majesty”. He succeeds by carefully gaining the acquiescence of the lower classes and using this popularity to discipline the infighting nobles.
Sometimes people struggle to understand Shakespeare’s language. But this isn’t because he’s writing in a different language – unlike Chaucer, for example, who wrote in Middle English, which is quite distinct from Modern English.
Veteran journalist Harold Evans argued in his book Essential English that great journalism should aspire to imitate Shakespeare’s writing in at least one respect: economy. Like other forms of poetry, Shakespeare’s verse is very concentrated. It weaves together a dense tapestry of meanings, in which each word is carefully weighed and often carries more than one meaning. Shakespeare, like Marx, says more in a couple of lines than most writers can in a thousand words.
This dense language is part of why people sometimes struggle with Shakespeare. But, with a good cast of actors, you’ll soon get into the rhythm of it. Shakespeare is worth watching not because he created perfect artistic masterpieces, but because he actually wrote messy patchwork plays that tried to muddle towards the heart of some of the most interesting problems human beings faced in his time.
There’ll always be pretentious twits who hover around Shakespeare – but we shouldn’t surrender his plays to them. Next time you hear someone drone on about the “transcendental wit” of Shakespeare, do us all a favour and chuck a Jeffrey Archer novel in their face. That’s what they deserve.
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