Four centuries on – Shakespeare

Tomorrow, 23 April 2016, is a big anniversary.  I wrote the following in a book called The West Awakes.

William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616)

William Shakespeare was born in Stratford, England and he died there.  He had a good, solid education, and then he settled down to provide for his wife and children.  His business was to write plays, mainly in verse, and to manage drama in production at theatres like the Globe, and occasionally to act in them.  He prospered in that business and he appears to have died at peace with himself.  We know little about his life.  It looks quite unremarkable – except that his thirty-eight plays and his sonnets are thought to contain literature and drama as good as anything else in the world.  He is widely seen as the greatest genius in history.  His work continues to affect people in their lives all around the world.

You will not see the work of any dramatist set out in poetry in anything like what you get with Shakespeare.  Another distinction is the range of the work.  Shakespeare appears to have been as much at home with comedy as he was with tragedy, with English history plays as with Roman history plays, or with Romances.  Neither Ibsen nor Chekhov ever wrote a comedy, and you will probably get more laughs from a tragedy of Shakespeare than you will get from most of the plays of these great two playwrights.

We are talking about different categories of drama.  There is another way in which Shakespeare covered a greater range – it is the range of subject matter, the range of humanity.  Ibsen and Chekhov tended to focus on educated people of their country and their own time.  Shakespeare ranged from the Bronze Age (Troilus and Cressida) to his equivalent of a contemporary Neighbours (The Merry Wives of Windsor), from Vienna (Measure for Measure), to Athens (Timon), Elsinore (Hamlet) and Scone (Macbeth), but most importantly, from a great king (Henry V) to the drunken, cheating, womanising insult to chivalry (Falstaff); to the dregs of Eastcheap (Bardolph and Peto), and the drunken porter (Macbeth), and the whores and madams of Vienna (Measure for Measure).  Until the great king closes a loop by hanging Bardolph after repudiating Falstaff, and even afterwards, there is no way of saying where this writer was more at home, at the top of the social pile or at the bottom.  Has any other writer ever shown so much penetration and understanding of so many facets of the human condition?

But to Shakespeare the question was whether people were entertained by his plays.  They were and they still are.  To most people what comes first is the skill of the writer as a dramatist – the way he puts his story of characters on the stage and holds our interest – the way he entertains us for the duration of the play.  Poetry is for many a bonus, for some a distraction, and for others just a nuisance.

Two themes recur in the plays of this writer: the superiority of women to men; and the inferiority of the better people to the lesser people, the anti-establishment streak.  You do not find so much of these challenges to orthodoxy or these brushes with modernity in the works of Homer, Dante or Goethe.  What we have is a persistent streak of raw rebellion.  Ibsen wanted to put a torpedo under the ark of Scandinavian society, and his two most famous plays now, A Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler, gave voice to women in that bleak, tawdry Northern world, but does the voice of protest ring as loudly there as it did with Shakespeare?

To an uncommitted observer who comes to review these plays as a whole in performance, these two characteristics – the feeling for women and the feeling against the Establishment – are both obvious and striking.  Why are they so little remarked upon?  Part of the reason is, perhaps, that professional critics have tended to be ageing middle class academics who live off the public purse, but who do not go to the theatre enough – like Cassius in Julius Caesar, Act 1, Scene 2, they read a lot and think too much – and who have a cloistered unawareness of the rough edges of humanity, being more at home with their iambic pentameters and people who speak softly and politely.

There are at least three reasons why the plays of Shakespeare still enthral audiences and enlighten readers all around the world.

The first is their intrinsic excellence as dramas and as poetry.  Shakespeare may or may not have been equalled as a poet, but he was never equalled as a dramatist.

The second is the range of his material, not just geographically or historically, or across the various genres of the plays, but across the whole range of the human experience for all kinds and levels of humanity.  It is these two factors that give the sense of timelessness and universality possessed by great art.  When you add the ways that many of the plays challenged the status quo at the time the plays were written, in ways that can still seem at least relevant if not positively modern, you can see why each generation keeps coming back to the plays and keeps taking something different from them.

The third factor follows from what Nietzsche called ‘the death of God’.  Shakespeare wrote of a medieval world dominated by God and the Church.  That dominance had greatly been shaken by the time of Elizabeth I, not least because of the split in the church.  Now in England and in many of its former colonies, except the United States, God and the Church are minority interests, and the hunger for ritual and myth of the rest can be pathetic to observe.  There is only so far that Elvis Presley, the Princess of Wales, the Lions or Wallabies, or the All Blacks, or a couple of bottles of red, can go to fill the vacuum.  There are times when you can almost taste the void that is close to the heart of our communal life.

Shakespeare is part of our language, and part of the fabric of our history and intellectual life.  He is for us at least what Homer was to the Greeks.  Going to the theatre – to see Shakespeare or the opera – and drawing on our cultural history is as close as many can now get to the myth and ritual it seems that most humans crave.

The director Deborah Warner referred to the observation of Laurence Olivier that with Shakespeare we touch ‘the face of God’ and said:  ‘What Shakespeare does – whoever he was – he makes you proud to be human.’  Richard Burton said:

I wondered through the book for a long time, but no other writer hit me with quite the impact of William S.  What a stupendous God he was, he is.  What chance combination of genes went to the making of that towering imagination, that brilliant gift of words, that staggering compassion, that understanding of all human frailty, that total absence of pomposity, that wit, that pun, that joy in words and the later agony.  It seems that he wrote everything worth writing and the rest of his fraternity have merely fugued on his million themes…..

It was the mission of this poet to put us at ease with our humanity.  There is not much else to say, except that my favourite remark about Shakespeare was made by Ralph Waldo Emerson: ‘When I read Shakespeare, I actually shade my eyes.’