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Opinion The case against the Shakespeare cult

Why do so many worship at the altar of a playwright whose works describe a world that no longer exists? CHRIS JURY thinks he has the answer

MY NOSE was broken in 1981 by a “civilised” Shakespeare lover, who launched himself across the table and set about me simply because I dared to suggest that in 1981 The Clash were more culturally relevant than the Bard.

This pattern has been repeated throughout my life as civilised and sensitive Shakespeare lovers become rabid nut-jobs simply because I say I don’t particularly care for his work.

In middle-class, educated society it's perfectly acceptable to opine: “I don’t like the plays of Christopher Marlowe/Harold Pinter/Jez Butterworth” or whoever, but to say: “I don’t like the plays of Shakespeare” is to condemn oneself as an ignoramus and cultural Philistine. It is simply not acceptable for anyone who claims to be educated or intelligent to say they do not care for the Elizabethan playwright.

Yet he wrote his plays nearly 450 years ago in an England that was a brutal and totalitarian dictatorship, in which to incite the displeasure of the monarch could easily, and often did, end in your torture and execution. Concepts of equality before the law, universal suffrage and women’s rights as we know them today were unthinkable.

Shakespeare also wrote in a very different version of English than now, with many of the grammatical forms and individual words he uses no longer having common currency. This makes the verse difficult to speak and very difficult for a general audience to understand.

What on earth is going on here? Why are people not allowed to dislike Shakespeare as a writer? Why do we spend hundreds of millions of pounds every year on performing plays that are 450 years old and that describe a world that no longer exists? Is it because Shakespeare is the “timeless” genius our cultural elite claims he is? Or is it because appreciating Shakespeare has become a defining cultural orthodoxy qualifying you for membership of the middle class?

For a bourgeois cultural elite, the more difficult a form is, the more useful it is in establishing elite credentials. The difficulty of Shakespeare is not due to intellectual or philosophical complexity — he wrote for a largely illiterate, popular audience —  but rather that his plays are written in an obsolete form of English that is 450 years old. The willingness to work hard to appreciate the works of Shakespeare, despite the linguistic difficulties, is what demonstrates your commitment to civilised middle-class values.

To say “I don’t like Shakespeare” is taken by middle-class commentators to be a rejection of the authority of all the elite experts, academics, theatre critics, dramaturges and artistic directors who have declared Shakespeare’s genius. It's to confess to not liking  any cultural activity at all and to side with the plebs who would tear down everything decent and civilised and replace it with wall-to-wall X-Factor and super-hero films.

But that's not where I'm coming from. My aversion to Shakespeare comes after reading and watching Shakespeare’s plays for over 40 years. Using my own rational and critical faculties, I've come to the conclusion that they are massively overrated.

Many are all over the place in terms of any contemporary understanding of structure, plotting and characterisation. Indeed, the majority of his plays are relatively obscure because of this, with productions of Shakespeare across the world dominated by only a handful of the 37 works attributed to him.

A dozen good and perhaps half-a-dozen great plays is a pretty good record by anyone’s standards, but it's a more nuanced response to the writer’s oeuvre than the uncritical worship of every line he ever wrote.

People sometimes respond to such criticisms by claiming that the beauty of Shakespeare’s language overcomes these other weaknesses and renders them insignificant, even in the “weaker” plays. Apart from the fact that most people don’t go to plays to hear poetry recited, this argument brings us back to my original contention that, beautiful though this poetry may be, it is written in an obsolete form most people simply have neither the time nor the inclination to try to make sense of.

Yet if you find Shakespeare boring and unintelligible or find elements of Shakespeare’s plotting or dramatic structure weak or implausible, this apparently demonstrates not that there are problems with Shakespeare’s writing but, on the contrary, that your lack of education, intelligence and sensitivity renders you blind to his greatness.

Shakespeare’s plays have attained the status of religious texts that cannot be criticised and to take him to task as a writer is to deny his unique creative genius, the cultural equivalent of denying the divinity of a Christ or Mohammed. Just as religious heretics must be silenced and punished, so must the heretical critics of Shakespeare — hence my broken nose.

It's interesting to note that the cult of Shakespeare as the “special one,” rather than as one writer in the canon of English literature, developed simultaneously with the development of the British empire.

Crucial to the moral justification for the brutal imperial conquest of half the world was the idea that the British were an exceptional race whose moral, practical, creative and intellectual superiority over other races meant they were destined to rule the world. Surely a nation that could produce the brilliance of Chaucer, Milton, Wordsworth and the greatest writer in world literature must be destined to greatness. Thus Shakespeare became a literary equivalent to Nelson or Wellington — an imperial hero, confirming Britain’s greatness.

It's worth pointing out that the idea that the so-called classics of literature reveal “universal human truths” is a denial of the political. In Shakespeare’s plays nearly all the protagonists are aristocrats or royalty. Working-class and even merchant-class characters are almost always comic fools or villains. In his plays, the idea of monarchy and aristocracy is never challenged and no alternative ever even hinted at.

To suggest that this reflects some sort of “universal” representation of human truth is to suggest that monarchy and aristocracy are the natural way human beings organise themselves and that there is no alternative — a familiar trope.

This is, of course, deeply political and deeply reactionary.

But the cult of Shakespeare entirely dominates subsidised theatre in Britain today, where we we fund the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre puts on Shakespeare and every rep theatre in the land puts on at least one Shakespeare production a year and schools, universities and colleges all mount endless productions.

If drama plays a part in defining and redefining human society, how does putting on plays that helped define the world 450 years ago help us today? If the time, money and creative effort that now goes into performing Shakespeare were put into new plays, we really would be living in a new golden age of the theatre.

Chris Jury is an award-winning actor, writer and director. The co-founder of the Tolpuddle Radical Film Festival, he is a member of the TV committee of the Writers Guild Of Great Britain. This article first appeared in Culture Matters, culturematters.org.uk

 

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