Industrial Shakespeare. By The Doktor
It is frequently asserted that each age interprets and
reproduces art in its own image, using it for its own ends. This could hardly
be otherwise, a work that has no relevance will fall into disuse. It is to
Shakespeare's credit that audiences, directors, performers and even critics
still find something in them. While it may be hard to associate the notion of
eternity with anything human in our 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.
Shakespeare is much discussed by academics. One of the features
which has attracted their attention is the quality of his language. At its best
it 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. 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 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, 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
Bernard Manning / Michael Barrymore / Frank Bruno") are parodied as cliches,
re-integration into the structure can restore their meaning.
Shakespeare suffers as a poet by his removal from dramatic
context. Empson ('Hamlet when new' in '86), 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 are a parody of young lovers; other characters, the
Nurse, Mercutio, provide an ironic counter-text to their passion. Shakespeare
in anthology serves neither Shakespeare nor art. On what grounds is 'Where
the bee sucks' anthologised ? Is it a good example of Shakespeare's dense,
rich, supple verse ? No, it's uncommonly simple and naive. Is it any good ? Not
really. It is in this book because it is usefully short and by Shakespeare, if
he is not someone else.
Shakespeare was also capable, it seems, of writing marvellously
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 ?'
(IV,ii,320-321) would require a nerve of steel from any actress.
It is the use of language 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. 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. Language has changed, leaving us with a gap in
comprehension compounded by doubtful transmission; however, it can hardly be
maintained that Shakespearean standards of integration, allusion, atmosphere,
imagery and emotional resonance in the language of his plays have been
regularly exceeded by writers in any form since his death.
Each critic has a version of what, how and why Shakespeare
wrote. Shakespeare is 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
toil of countless quibbling academics. Like God, Shakespeare is everywhere,
literally unavoidable. (George Fodor uses examples from Shakespeare to
illustrate his proposals on meaning in 'Psychosemantics'). He has been a Tory,
a revolutionary, a proponent of cosmic order, the bearer of eternal truth, a
theologian, a determinist, the repository for all that is 'reactionary'. In
this welter of projection it is easily forgotten that he was a dramatist. It
seems Shakespeare is one of the most transparent of authors, he is not given to
editorialising or stating his position, his characters speak from their own
perspective. Keats and Jorge Luis Borges feel this (Borges has Shakespeare in
conversation with God after death, each 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, 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. He
wrote well for even marginal characters. This alone could account for much of
his adaptability and longevity.
For 200 years or more he has been the pre-eminent exemplar of
English Literature. No matter how many whining schoolboys are bussed
unwillingly to Stratford there must be other playgoers still pleased to to see
Shakespeare in performance, actors and directors interested, even eager, to
stage Shakespeare. Each interpretation is likely to emphasise certain aspects
at the expense of others, and each production differ. Each performance is made
anew, participating in Benjamin's mystical 'aura' of the 'original'. This is
one of the qualities of Drama that has helped Shakespeare survive. Drama itself
is an adaptive medium.
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 origins complex. It seems likely that Shakespeare's plays were
performed in various versions by his own company, indeed I would like to
propose, entirely without evidence, that they might have been worked up among
the company and put into shape, or various succesive shapes, by Shakespeare.
The earliest versions we have of his plays differ in various ways from each
other. Such adaptability may be 'built in', like our own obsolescence. Most
Shakespeare plays were always the result of centuries of story-telling.
The nature of power, the will to power, justice, mercy, nation,
society, fate, religion, divine order, and personal responsibility are all
present and in discussion in the History plays. '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 nevertheless participates in debates over Governance; 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 heightened in terms of dramatic
contrast and excitement. 'King Lear' has its horror and tragedy vastly
deepened by the death of Cordelia. 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.
Themes are so many and varied that each generation of critics
seizes a handful and says it is a haystack. There may be a good deal of
'reading in' of over-arching schemes. 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 symbolism drawn from classical myth and
Christianity. Different religious worlds co-exist 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
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 landscapes of Lear, Macbeth, Othello,
Hamlet and Troilus and Cressida are unremittingly harsh and
bleak. We are presented with beings driven by foolishness and 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
themes. Public and personal relations and their interaction are debated in
'Romeo and Juliet', 'Troilus and Cressida', 'The Merchant of
Venice'. In the late plays children enact a reconciliation and redemption
unavailable to Romeo and Juliet.
Shakespeare's company was first 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 as 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.
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
felt at this time in British cultural life, Shakespeare gives evidence of this
with classical pagan and humanistic strands mixed with Christianity. The
Elizabethan era was 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. An 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.
Shakespeare writes slippery time, 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, strengthening motivation in 'Othello', for example. Close
textual study reveals as a defect, an inconsistency, what is 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. Apart from ambiguous time, Shakespeare also performs feats of
ambiguity in every other department, as elucidated by William Empson and
others. Ambiguity, multi-valency are sources of great resilience, and
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 (see Iago). 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 Empson '86 p.38.)
From what little we can infer of Shakespeare's working practices
he would not object to his plays undergoing re-interpretation. For much of this
we have to thank generations of critics from Johnson, Hazlitt, Bradley et al,
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, a sonnet sequence. Critics will always judge by their own
measure. Thus : '...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.' (Tillyard, '62. p.277.) - and no doubt right and proper
to his way of thinking, as he makes clear in a passage attempting to excuse
Henry V of one of his bouts of heartlesness.
Some cultural bias is unavoidable, and new bias superceeds the
old. That Shakespeare has been consistently represented or appropriated by
every generation is 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 importance.
Shakespeare can be read as a cultural phenomenon, of no more intrinsic interest
than the advertising of washing powder, although with a longer and even more
contentious history. 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 through four centuries. Their persistent misrepresentation by
all-comers is not surprising. Works produced under censorship must weigh their
words carefully, and Shakespeare is better fitted to withstand an inquisition
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 planetary mortality; our
love of tourism; all these have 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 icons.
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 led to his incorporation in
tea-towels, his superimposition on mugs, and countless other manifestations of
the tourist merchandiser's art; whether this cheapens the work itself is
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. If
audiences still make connection with Shakespeare's work, then Shakespeare will
continue to be remade. Institutionalisation and decontextualisation present the
greatest threats to his continued relevance. Shakespeare's health seems good,
but he has 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.
SHAKESPEARE, W., 'Complete Works', Oxford University
Press, Oxford, 1914.
Sinfield, A., & Dollimore, J., (eds.), 'POLITICAL
Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1994.
Tillyard, E.M.W., 'Shakespeare's History Plays.' Penguin,
Watts, C., 'Romeo and Juliet.', Harvester Wheatsheaf, London,