Why has Shakespeare endured so spectacularly ? By The
'A play by Shakespeare moves through time, changing,
mutating, breeding, and evolving.'
(Cedric Watts, 'Romeo and Juliet', p. xv.)
This passage suggests the analogy of a creature, or species of
creatures, and one can see the individual work, in whatever medium, in this
light. One skill particularly recommended as a survival tactic by Darwin is the
ability to adapt, a criterion perhaps best fulfilled by Drama. It is frequently
asserted that each age interprets and produces art in its own image, and uses
it for its own ends. However, a work in any form that cannot be shown to have
relevance for a new audience will fall into disuse. It is to Shakespeare's
credit that audiences, directors, performers and even critics still find
something in them. It is even to the credit of the now unfashionable critics of
the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who regarded Shakespeare as a
secular god or prophet, retailing eternal truths. While it may be hard to
associate the notion of eternity with anything human in our increasingly
mortally aware era it is clear that Shakespeare, and the stories told by
Shakespeare, will be in culture for as long as culture remains anything we can
In this essay I will attempt to enumerate some if the ways in
which the work of Shakespeare displays this necessary adaptability to new
cultural circumstances, and advance some possible reasons for its continued
Shakespeare is much discussed by academics. One of the features
which has attracted their attention and the attention of the editors of
anthologies is the quality of Shakespeare's language. At its best Shakespeare's
language is rich, vivid, appropriate to character and context, allusive,
subtle, supple and strong. He writes lovely blank verse, which improves over
the course of his career. He wrote much great poetry, insofar as I can judge. I
know little as simple and moving as Lear's last speech :
'............. No no no life !
Why should a horse, a dog, a rat have life,
and thou no life at all..............'
and he had great range. His jokes are famously not funny
anymore, but time has not treated his dramatic verse and prose too roughly.
Certain passages may seem meaningless through over-use and decontextualisation,
but although they; (Hamlet in doublet and hose, holding a skull, reciting a
mish-mash of soliloquy; Romeo and Juliet at the balcony "Wherefore art thou
Romeo ?" "I'm over here, played by Norman Wisdom / Bernard Manning / Michael
Barrymore / Frank Bruno."); are parodied as cliches their re-integration into
Shakespeare's structure can restore their meaning.
Shakespeare in fact suffers as a poet by his removal from
dramatic context. Hamlet, in context, can allow us to recognise his
false-seeming, he is already aware of his passage through time, of his
artificiality, his stage nature. Empson in 'Essays on Shakespeare.', published
posthumously, makes a good case for Hamlet deliberately playing on the stage
nature of 'Hamlet' as a dramatic device, a self-awareness which seems
avant-garde even now, and reminds one of Brecht. Romeo and Juliet almost are a
parody of young lovers; other characters, the Nurse, Mercutio, provide an
ironic counter-text to their passion.
If Anthologising weakens Shakespeare's work, production restores
The power of the language is also restored, except where sheer
richness imposes impossible strains on what we think of as realism or the
understanding of contemporary audiences.
Shakespeare in anthology serves neither Shakespeare nor art. On
what grounds is 'Where the bee sucks.' so heavily anthologised ? Is it a
good example of Shakespeare's dense, rich, supple verse, of Shakespearean
poetics ? No, it's uncommonly simple and naive. Does it advance the cause of
Elizabethan verse ? No, it is a song lyric, it is sung by fairies. Is it any
good ? Not really. It is in this book because it is usefully short, self
contained, and by Shakespeare, if he is not someone else.
Shakespeare was also capable, it seems, of writing marvelously
badly. The early history plays may be dull, but the line in Cymbeline, for
example, where Imogen, speaking to a corpse she believes to be that of her
'Oh Posthumous, alas, where is thy head ?'
would require a nerve of steel from any actress.
It is the use of language itself however that gives Shakespeare
much of his resilience. Other writers have sought to give new life to old
stories, self consciously or not, (indeed it is sometimes said that there are
only five 'plots', not that anyone has ever told me what they are.), but
not all adaptations have proved as long-lived as Shakespeare's. Shakespeare's
language has been trawled, gutted and processed for reference, inter-relation,
motivation, beauty, imagery, philosophy, and for quotations in support of any
point of view. At its best Shakespeare's use of language is as rich and telling
as anything I ever read, bringing a wealth of flavours and undertones to each
image, as well as being vibrant and 'springy' verse carrying dramatic motion.
This is, and will remain, an astonishing achievement. That language has changed
cannot be disputed, leaving us with a certain gap in comprehension compounded
by doubtful transmission, however, it can hardly be maintained that
Shakespearean standards of integration, characterisation, allusion, atmosphere,
imagery and emotional resonance in the language of his plays have been
regularly exceeded by writers in any form since his death.
Discussion of language brings us directly to the influence of
critics on the reading of Shakespeare. This has been huge, and naturally each
critic has his own version of what, how and why Shakespeare wrote. Shakespeare
is therefore, many things to many people. To some he is Bacon. To some he is a
secular religion. He is now an Industry. From his largesse he funds the diurnal
toil of countless quibbling academics. Like God, Shakespeare is everywhere. He
is literally unavoidable. (George Fodor uses examples from Shakespeare to
illustrate his new proposals on the nature of meaning in his recent work
'Psychosemantics'.) He has been a Tory, a revolutionary, a proponent of cosmic
order, a prophet of chaos, the harbinger of eternal truth, a Christian
theologian, a determinist, and now he is rapidly becoming the repository for
all that is 'reactionary'. In this welter of projection it is easily forgotten
that he was a dramatist. This huge spread of uses has many explanations, at
least as many as there are critics, but essentially what has attracted these
diverse and subtle minds to Shakespeare's legacy is both its artistic
wholeness, its unity, and its open-ness of interpretation, its diversity. Drama
itself is a form given to open-ness, requiring as it does that a play be 'made
anew' each time it is performed. It seems to me that Shakespeare is one of the
most transparent of authors, that he is not given to editorialising or stating
his position, and that his characters speak from their own perspective. Keats
and Jorge Luis Borges advance this position, (Borges has Shakespeare in
conversation with God after death, each of them confessing that they have no
point of view to call their own.), and the wealth of conflicting opinion and
the variety of productions created over the last 350 years, and particularly
the last 100 would seem to bear it out. Shakespeare gives a surprisingly wide
range of social classes and personal viewpoints cogent and often moving
expression. This alone could account for much of hie relevance, adaptability
Critical interest, as I have indicated, must account for part of
his continued popularity, indeed, for 200 years or more he has been held up as
the pre-eminent exemplar of English Literature. However, no matter how many
whining schoolboys, with or without their satchels are bussed unwillingly to
Stratford there are and must be other playgoers still pleased to to see
Shakespeare in performance, actors and directors interested, even eager, to
stage Shakespeare in a variety of ways. Each interpretation is likely to
emphasise certain aspects at the expense of others, as is each critical view,
so each production, each performance is liable to differ. As Walter Benjamin
says in his essay 'The Work of Art in the Mechanical Age of Reproduction'
(Illuminations, Cape, London 1970)
'The poorest provincial staging of Faust is superior to a
Faust film in that, ideally, it competes with the first performance.'
Each performance is made anew, thus participating in Benjamin's
mystical 'aura' of the 'original', whereas a film is fixed forever. This is one
of the qualities of Drama then, that has helped Shakespeare survive. Drama
itself is an adaptive medium. Why, however, apart from economic concerns, or
the strength of the writing for even quite marginal characters should audiences
directors and performers still find relevance in Shakespeare ? I think a
further explanation is to be sought in the nature of the stories Shakespeare
chose to re-tell.
Shakespeare's sources are various, and most of his plays derive
from stories old enough to be termed 'myth'. Some are related by Boccaccio,
some derive from classical Roman and Greek authors, almost all are relayed in
various forms by various authors up to Shakespeare's time, making the tracing
of their origin a slippery and time-consuming task. It might be argued that
Shakespeare, by adapting these stories has killed them off, (we are unlikely to
see Pinter's 'Romeo and Juliet' or Aykbourne's 'King Lear', although Tom
Stoppard.......), but there are ballets, operas, films and cartoons made of
Shakespeare plays, so it is mostly dramatists who have been frightened off. In
any case he has preserved them, and we have fixed them by dint of exhaustive
editorial judgement in a stable form. It seems likely that Shakespeare's plays
were performed in various versions by his own company, I would like to propose,
entirely without evidence that they might have been worked up among the company
and put into shape, or various successive shapes by Shakespeare. The earliest
versions we have of the majority of his plays all differ in various ways from
each other. This adaptability begins to look 'built in', like our own
obsolescence. However this is, each Shakespeare play is, was always, the result
of centuries of story-telling, and most of these stories can consider
themselves lucky to have him.
Some of his stories are taken from history, a form of myth
beloved of many, and these explore Kingship, which is, in our terms, politics.
Notions on the nature of power, the will to power, justice, mercy, nation,
society, fate, religion, divine order, responsibility,, and countless other
strands are all present and in discussion in the History plays, although many
are much more deeply explored through other stories, drawn from fictional or
folk sources. 'Hamlet' deals with Parent/child relations in a manner that seems
to prefigure Freud's Oedipus Complex. 'Romeo and Juliet' frames the concept of
romantic love. A few stories seem to have no direct antecedents, 'The Tempest',
for example, which seems in many ways a personal farewell to the theatre; but
most have been derived from material already honed down to the essentials by
the passage of time. Almost all differ from the sources in some aspects of plot
and characterisation, and all seem to have been considerably heightened in
terms of dramatic contrast and excitement. 'King Lear' has its horror and
tragedy vastly deepened by changing the end. Sometimes his treatments seem
strikingly bold and modern, as when Hamlet is made to point up his own delay
throughout the play, following the whims of the plot with passionate
Shakespeare's themes seem so many and varied that each
generation of critics seizes a handful and pretends it is the entire haystack.
Perhaps also there is a good deal of 'reading in' of over-arching schemes and
so-on. Personal relations are certainly considered, both romantic and friendly.
Parents worry about children, children about parents, lovers about the beloved,
men about women, the ruler about the ruled and vice versa all in a welter of
religious and philosophical symbolism drawn from classical myth and
Christianity. Different religious worlds co-exist even in the same play,
sometimes conflicting, sometimes without apparent effort. Politics is
considered, and the 'common man' given his voice, although not as loudly and as
often as some. There is a great deal about sexual jealousy, about morality,
about proper conduct. The imagery goes deeper into the thematic material than a
plot summary could demonstrate. Separating theme, image, language, character
and story is an analytical approach unsuited to expressing artistic wholeness,
however, I suppose I shall carry on.
These stories and themes, then, seem to prefigure the course of
psychoanalysis, encompassing Frued, Adler and Jung, and the relation of people
to fate / destiny / providence / fortune / the stars is examined too, bringing
in to question determinism, free will, divine intervention and divine justice.
The emotional landscape of Lear, Macbeth, Othello, Hamlet and Troilus and
Cressida, as exemplars, is unremittingly harsh and bleak. We are presented with
beings driven by suffering to the edge of human experience, and we are offered
little by way of comfort. Madness, war, jealousy and social disorder (the great
fear seems to be civil war) are thus brought in as themes. Public and personal
relations and their interaction are debated also, for example in 'Romeo and
Juliet', 'Troilus and Cressida', or 'The Merchant of Venice'. As another
analytical category we could discuss the situations people find themselves in,
a more static analysis than plot, but more relational than character. Not that
I'm going to invent it now, I will leave that to you, I've got enough to do,
for example; Time.
There are two senses of the word 'time' I need to explore, as so
often in Shakespeare. The first is that of the context in which Shakespeare was
writing, the second that time which Shakespeare wrote. Shakespeare's company
was sponsored by the Lord Chamberlain, a very senior official of the Court. The
plays, written in a time of acute and increasing political repression under
Elizabeth, were subject to censorship of text at the outset. Drama was very
much the rising popular medium early in his career, and there seems little
doubt that Shakespeare was a popular dramatist with his contemporaries. His
audience is thought to have been drawn from a wide cross-section of society,
and his works largely performed in less than salubrious areas of London,
although later in his life the nature of the theatre seems to have changed,
with an increasingly well-to-do audience predominating. Careful analysis of
contemporary events can often be fruitfully linked with the detail or
background of the plays. The effect of the European Renaissance is making
itself felt at this time in British cultural life, Shakespeare gives evidence
of this with classical pagan and humanistic strands mixed in with Christianity.
The Elizabethan era seems to have been one of relative prosperity, Britain
beginning a long career as a Nation of pirates and 'imperialists'. All this can
be detected in Shakespeare's texts and influences his work. The collision of
renaissance humanism and Catholicism leads to the phenomenon of Puritanism, and
a whole age of increasing technological and intellectual development is
beginning. This expanding mind, the 'optimism' of the renaissance enters, but
does not dominate Shakespeare's work.
The time Shakespeare writes is slippery. There are many examples
of dual time schemes in his plays, in 'Romeo and Juliet' for example, and
Hamlet, which worries commentators seeking Aristotelian unity. Shakespeare was
no classicist, however, he was involved in creating new forms, and any
confusion of time is used by him to give a dramatic effect in performance. It
is used to give the impression of strengthening motivation in 'Othello', for
example. Close textual study reveals as a defect, an inconsistency, what is in
fact a way of compressing action in the interests of the stage. Thus Hamlet's
procrastination leads him to be two ages, and to pass several weeks on board
ship in a day or two at most. As Christopher North says :
'We are held in a confusion or delusion about the time. We
have the effect of both, distinct knowledge of neither..................When we
inspect the play in our closets, the Juggler does his trick slowly. We sit at
the play, he does it quick.'
(Quoted in "'Hamlet' a new Varorium Edition", Preface, ed. H.H.
Furness, Dover, New York, 1963.)
Apart from ambiguous time, Shakespeare also performs feats of
ambiguity in every other department, as elucidated by William Empson and
others. Ambiguity, multi-valency, these are sources of great resilience, they
are the strategies adopted by literature under censorship. It is not just
language which is invested with ambiguity. Relationships are ambiguous, witness
Falstaff and Prince Hal. Conclusions are ambiguous, c.f. 'Measure for Measure'.
Motivation is. Shakespeare's intentions certainly are, indeed the range of
Shakespeare's intentions, as set out by critics, fills many long nights with
quiet moaning. As Empson says;
'......the dramatic ambiguity is the source of these new
interpretations, the reason why you can go on finding new ones, the reason why
the effect is so rich."
('Falstaff' in 'Essays on Shakespeare.' C.U.P. Cambridge 1986
From what little we can infer of Shakespeare's working practices
he would not object too much to his plays undergoing such continuous
re-interpretation. For much of this we have to thank generations of critics
from Johnson, Hazlitt, Bradley et al on, whose interest has been stimulated by
the sheer size and quality of the body of work we call Shakespeare. There are
36 or 37 plays in various versions, narrative poems, and a narrative sonnet
sequence. Critics will always judge by their own measure. Thus Tillyard :
'.....the sub-human element in the population must have been
considerable in Shakespeare's day; that it should be treated like beasts was
taken for granted.'
(E.M.W. Tillyard, 'Shakespeare's History Plays.' Peregrine,
Harmondsworth, 1962. p.277.)
and no doubt right and proper to Tillyard's way of thinking, as
he makes clear in a passage attempting to excuse Henry V of one of his periodic
bouts of heartlessness.
Critics have taken much sustenance from the expropriation of
Shakespeare. Naturally, some cultural bias is unavoidable, and new bias
supersedes the old. The latest trend in criticism, known variously as 'new
historicism' or 'cultural materialism' stresses the notion that it is
impossible to gain access to the 'original' Shakespeare. He has been
consistently represented or appropriated by every generation. This is surely a
demonstration of the strength of his texts, not their weakness. Shakespeare
spreads out into culture, increasingly removed from context and is deployed to
defend all manner of viewpoints. To say that none of these appropriations is
Shakespeare's fault is not to deny them their clear importance. The Cultural
Materialists seem to be in danger of undermining their own position. They feel
Shakespeare is essentially played out, inaccessible, spent, a debased coinage,
and yet they dare not admit their livelihood depends on the study of something
of no value. They seek to study Shakespeare as a cultural phenomenon, of no
more intrinsic interest than the advertising of washing powder, although with a
longer and even more contentious history. They find themselves therefore more
interested in what has been said about or done with Shakespeare than what his
characters said or did. This concentration on the ripples in the pool ignores
the cause of the disturbance. It is the merits of the works themselves which
have allowed them to survive and to adapt so successfully through four
centuries. Their persistent misrepresentation by all-comers is actually neither
surprising nor interesting, but their survival is. Works produced under
censorship must weigh their words carefully, and Shakespeare is probably better
fitted to withstand a political inquisition than most. What most impresses on a
detailed reading of Shakespeare is the density of allusion and interconnection,
the unity and wholeness of the artistic elements.
Perhaps the growth of the 'Heritage Industry' is a sign of our
contemporary awareness of change as a rapid and destructive process.
Renaissance optimism has rather worn off. We are beyond reason. Our distrust of
the technology on which we depend; our awareness of a mortality which now
includes all life; our love of tourism; these have all fuelled a desire to
preserve and market our culture. Americans, in vast numbers, flock to Stratford
to see Shakespeare, and Shakespeare's England. It is unfair to blame
Shakespeare for this, but it is sometimes hard not to resent him his iconic
Shakespeare is everywhere. His empire still expands. Discussion
of him proliferates. An increasing large-scale institutional involvement in
Shakespeare over the course of this century has undoubtedly led to his
incorporation in tea-towels, his superimposition on mugs, and countless other
manifestations of the tourist merchandiser's art; whether this eventually
cheapens the work itself is as yet uncertain, but the great Shakespeare tourist
machine has constructed a mighty industry on the basis of a bland bardolatry.
It is nearly unthinkable that this will collapse overnight, any more than the
Disney empire, or E.M.I. is likely to disappear. However, it is unlikely that
mere economics can keep a cultural form alive, it requires a commitment from a
large number of people to do so. As long as audiences in the theatre still make
connection with Shakespeare's work, then Shakespeare will continue to be
remade. Increasing industrialisation of his work may lead to further
institutionalism and the remoteness of respectability. Institutionalisation
frequently leads to disconnection from the living flow of contemporary culture.
This, and the gradual decontextualisation of his work caused by anthologising
and mis-quotation represent the greatest threat to his continued relevance.
Shakespeare's health seems good. I am just a little worried that he seems to
have put on a lot of weight over the last century or so. This puts a strain on
the heart. 'Heritage' and 'relevance' are not always comfortably yoked
together. Shakespeare, as ever, stands at a crossroads.
© The Doktor
Benjamin, W., 'Illuminations', Cape, London, 1970.
Dollimore, J., 'Radical Tragedy.', Harvester Wheatsheaf, London,
Empson, W., 'Essays on Shakespeare.', C.U.P., Cambridge, 1986.
Fodor, G., 'Psychosemantics.'
Furness, H.H., (ed.), 'Hamlet, a new Varorium Edition.' Dover,
New York, 1963.
Tillyard, E.M.W., 'Shakespeare's History Plays.' Penguin,
Watts, C., 'Romeo and Juliet.', Harvester Wheatsheaf, London,