Shakespeare 400 – What’s The Point?
With the world in the state it’s in, with thousands of refugees living in inhumane conditions; with terrorists attacking whatever we hold dear, from Palmyra to Paris; with our youth so disenfranchised that they are crossing the globe to join these terrorists; with global warming galloping onwards practically unchecked; and with greed and the precious idea of the “free market” pushing society to the brink of collapse (to mention but a few issues), should we really be pouring all our time and money into the work of some poet, 400 years dead?
It’s Shakespeare’s birthday and – this year’s a biggie – his 400 year anniversary. There’s a lot to celebrate. This is that great time of year (better than Christmas) when the media is strewn with bits and bobs about Shakespeare’s contribution to the English language, Shakespeare’s greatest hits, and which actor has proven their worth ‘playing the Dane.’ This anniversary year, of course, has increased this output manifold! There is, of course, the old debate about whether Shakespeare even wrote his plays, and the perennial “why bother?” moaning. This year, the “why bother” brigade has new voices – and these are not mindless shouts. Normally, I would greet the question of what’s the point of Shakespeare with Little Britain style projectile vomiting, but this year the question struck a chord. Is getting excited about a bit of iambic pentameter while those Nigerian school girls are still missing the height of callous decadence?
Well yes. Yes it is. Yes and no. We need to stop turning our faces away from the severely hot water we, the global community, are currently in, but this doesn’t mean Shakespeare shouldn’t be celebrated. We can use this celebration as a platform to discuss these problems. We can hold Shakespeare up as an example of those good things in our world that, however hard it tries, terrorism cannot destroy. We can treasure Shakespeare as a symbol of an inclusive identity, as something we share across the globe. Whatever his motivation when he wrote his plays, even if he was only driven by commercial savvy, Shakespeare’s rich texts can spark discussions about humanity, prejudice, responsibility, and honesty. Take, for example. The Merchant of Venice, Shylock’s famous and oft decontextualized “Hath not a jew eyes” speech, may originally have been intended as ironic (Shylock is using the speech to justify literally hacking off a pound of Antonio’s flesh) yet, with the final example missed off the list, the speech has lent eloquence to those pleading for a recognition of common humanity. The play’s performance history demonstrates its power to highlight discrimination and prejudice. Many modern productions highlight the cruelty and privilege of the Christians in the play through performance, and depict Shylock as a sympathetic character. So what part in all this does Shakespeare play, you might ask, surely it is the directors and actors who are opening up debate, rather than the early modern, (probably) deeply ant-Semitic, and commercially minded playwright who was probably trying to capitalise on the Lopez scandal with a “Jew play” to rival Marlowe’s popular The Jew of Malta? Well, whatever his original intentions, Shakespeare does have a part to play. We can really have no idea what Shakespeare’s intentions were, but we can be sure that the lines he gives to Shylock are nothing short of mesmerizing with his hypnotic rhythms (despite speaking in prose), his compelling inversions, and his devastatingly poignant attention to detail (Leah’s turquoise). Shylock is the character that everyone remembers. Without this powerful source material the essential interpretations of directors and actors would not be half so powerful.
The Merchant of Venice is just one example of how Shakespeare’s plays can and should be used to discuss the ills in our society. Meera Syal described Hero’s supposed death in Much Ado About Nothing as a “stagedhonour killing”, drawing parallels between the plot of the renaissance comedy and a crime that is perpetrated more often than even statistics reveal in today’s society. Productions of The Tempest often use the complicated dynamics between Prospero, Ariel, and Caliban to comment upon the wrongs of colonialism and the delusions of its perpetrators. The rich texts of these works make them open to multiple interpretations, and create fertile ground for whatever discussions society needs to have. Hamlet has been performed as a play about transgender experience, warfare, bereavement, and many other ideas and issues besides these. Shakespeare’s plays represent a valuable resource through which we can express ourselves and enact these debates.
But what of those Shakespeare purists, who feel such interpretations are, in fact, impositions on the text? Is there a place for celebrating that sort of Shakespeare today? Again, I would argue yes. Stories, dreams, and poetry, sustain those in need, and are vital for mental health. The beauty of Shakespeare’s language should be cherished for its own sake now more than ever. The destruction of the Baal Shamin temple in Palmyra, the attack on the Bataclan stadium in Paris, and countless other acts of terror, do not only attack our safety, they also attack human inspiration, our capacity to create and enjoy beauty, and traditions of doing so. If we respond to these attacks by battening down the hatches, and putting aside “frivolous” subjects such as music, literature, art, and architecture, we allow terrorists to succeed. The works of Shakespeare are an example of the positive things humanity can create. In a moment of despair Hamlet describes the wonder that is mankind
What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals!
After this paean to humanity, Hamlet continues “And yet to me what is this quintessence of dust?” Although Hamlet can see the mechanical wonder of the human body as well as its beauty, the power and the potential of the human mind, and the wondrous and almost divine capacity that we have for creativity, he is so depressed that it all means nothing to him. It is no more than dust. Reading Shakespeare’s words remind us of this wonder and the fact that we, as humans, are more than mere dust. If we become so afraid that we only worry about food and defence and the economy, we forget our spiritual and creative potential, and this is the side of ourselves that we need to love, hope, and be generous.
So, With the world in the state it’s in, with thousands of refugees living in inhumane conditions; with terrorists attacking whatever we hold dear, from Palmyra to Paris; with our youth so disenfranchised that they are crossing the globe to join these terrorists; with global warming galloping onwards practically unchecked; and with greed and the precious idea of the “free market” pushing society to the brink of collapse (to mention but a few issues), should we really be pouring all our time and money into the work of some poet, 400 years dead? Yes, is the answer. We should celebrate Shakespeare as a symbol of what humanity can achieve, and what we share. Let’s celebrate these works, and let’s use them, not to distract from, but to talk about all the things we really need to.