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Why has Shakespeare endured so spectacularly ? By The Doktor.

'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 find recognisable.

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 survival.

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 it.

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 Husband enquires

'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 and longevity.

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 disconnectedness.

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 p.38.)

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 status.

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, 1989.

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, Harmondsworth, 1962.

Watts, C., 'Romeo and Juliet.', Harvester Wheatsheaf, London, 1991.


© Winamop 2004