Tom o'Bedlam, in King Lear
Friday, 26 May 2017 05:36

Is Shakespeare Universal?

Published in Theatre

Professor Gabriel Egan concludes his series on Shakespeare.

Shakespeare's fellow playwright Ben Jonson paid him a compliment that has come to haunt the study of plays from this period. "He was not of an age", wrote Jonson in a poem about Shakespeare, "but for all time". The poem was one of several commendatory verses printed at the front of the collected edition of Mr William Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies, now known as the First Folio, in 1623. Logically, there is something wrong with Jonson's claim: if Shakespeare's work were truly universal, speaking of the concerns of everyone for all time, then they must have spoken to his own time too. Yet Jonson specifically denies this in claiming that they were "not of an age". Perhaps Jonson meant that Shakespeare was not only suited to his own time.

The trouble with this interpretation is that such imprecise use of language, such a failure of logic, is just the kind of thing Jonson criticized Shakespeare for. In his collection of observations called Timber, or Discoveries, Jonson wrote that Shakespeare was apt to write carelessly illogical dialogue sometimes, "As when he said in the person of Caesar, one speaking to him 'Caesar thou dost me wrong', and he replied 'Caesar did never wrong, but with just cause' and such like, which were ridiculous". In his play The Staple of News, Jonson actually has a character repeat this illogicality as "Cry you mercy, you never did wrong, but with just cause". Jonson seems to be referring to the line in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar that comes down to us (in the First Folio) as "Know, Caesar doth not wrong, nor without cause / Will he be satisfied" (3.1), which is not illogical but rather awkwardly vague. It seems, from Jonson's harping on about it, that Shakespeare actually did write something quite illogical like "Know Caesar doth not wrong but with just cause" and that the line got altered in print after Jonson heard it in performance and pointed out what was wrong with it.

Scholars used to think that Shakespeare's works have come down to us in printed form rather by accident than authorial design. That is, until recently we thought that his only concern was to get his plays performed and that he cared nothing for their being published in books. This may seem a kind of disdain for future generations--for one's ability to speak to all time--but we should remember that theatre not print was the mass medium of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. 3,000 spectators could see and hear a play in an afternoon at an open-air amphitheatre like the Globe, but only half of them could buy the published book of the play because print-runs were limited by statute to 1,500 copies so that typesetters were kept in work. Books were reprinted of course, and recently the close analysis of book sales--judged by how often it was worth running off a second edition of 1,500 copies, and a third and so on--has shown that Shakespeare outsold any other dramatist in his lifetime and in the decades afterwards. If he wanted to speak to readers, those of his age and the ages that followed (and scholars now increasingly think that he did), then he succeeded handsomely.

Which returns us to the question of Shakespeare's alleged universality. Can the plays mean the same to us as they did to their original audiences and readers, now that we do not believe in the divine right of monarchs, or that sodomy is a sin, or that men are the superior sex? Given the variety of human cultures across time and across geography, how could the plays have a timeless universal essence? They cannot. But as complex works of art they may do something that Jonson's phrasing "not of an age but . . ." seems to hit upon: they may speak to us in ways that they could not in their own time. For example, The Merchant of Venice is not simply different now, for us seeing and reading it after the Jewish Holocaust, from how it seemed to its original audiences and readers, but in some ways it is also more resonant than ever it was before precisely because of its enhanced relevance after that calamity.

Likewise, when Lear asks Tom O'Bedlam "What is the cause of thunder?" (King Lear, 3.4) he is actually enquiring whether human actions cause bad whether. We know, as previous generations did not, that the correct answer is that they can. When boy actors pretend to be women who pretend to be men, today's audiences and readers are being asked some newly pertinent questions about identity, not only as defined by gender but also by social class. What difference does it make if Rosalind pretends to be a boy who pretends to be a girl who loves Orlando, rather than being that girl herself (As You Like It)? What difference does it make if Angelo stands in for the Duke, or if he is given Barnadine's head for Claudio's, or Raguzine's for Barnadine's (Measure for Measure)? The answer Shakespeare repeatedly gives us is that it does not matter much.

Identity in Shakespearian drama is fluid, but time on the other hand is irreversible. In the plays, things cannot be undone and indeed that word always means a calamitous state of affairs. The wounded Cassio is "undone by villains" (Othello 5.1) and the panicking Nurse tells Juliet "We are undone, lady, we are undone" after Romeo kills Tybalt (Romeo and Juliet, 3.2). The irreversibility of time in Shakespeare is not fatalism--his characters could always have made different choices--but a kind of existential morality: they are what they did and must take responsibility for. According to Shakespeare, it seems, just who we are is not given to us by external forces but is created by the actions in the present for which we are accountable. Where Jonson's resolutely logical mind balked at the unresolved contradiction of "wrong" and "just cause", Shakespeare seems to have preferred a dialectic that keeps the moral judgement open to interpretation. The resulting art may not retain its appeal for all time, but it has weathered the centuries rather better than Jonson's.