The cult of Shakespeare: a provocation
Saturday, 25 May 2024 06:08

The cult of Shakespeare: a provocation

Published in Theatre

Chris Jury tells us why he can't stand Shakespeare.

I don’t like Shakespeare. There, I’ve said it. Said the unsayable. A man who claims to be literate, educated and intelligent says he doesn’t like Shakespeare. It’s an outrage!

And I know ‘outrage’ will be a response to this statement because I’ve been saying the same thing for 40 years and have been met with occasionally violent outrage over and over again.

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 Shakespeare. This pattern has been repeated throughout my life as civilised, sensitive, Shakespeare lovers become rabid tyrants simply because I say I don’t care for the work of this particular Elizabethan playwright.

In middle class, educated, society it is perfectly acceptable to say, “I don’t like the plays of Christopher Marlowe” or “I don’t like the plays of Harold Pinter/Samuel Becket/Jez Butterworth etc, etc.” But to say, “I don’t like the plays of William Shakespeare” is to commit a cultural cardinal sin and to condemn oneself out of one’s own mouth 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 Shakespeare – to not like Shakespeare is to be by definition either uneducated or stupid.

Yet Shakespeare wrote his plays nearly 450 years ago in an England that was a brutal, religiously extremist, totalitarian regime that makes modern day Iran look like a liberal paradise. When Shakespeare wrote his plays England was ruled by an absolute monarch, religious faith was a political not a personal matter, religious heretics were regularly burned alive at the stake, and 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 version of English that is very different to that we use today, with many of the grammatical forms and individual words he uses no longer having common currency. This makes Shakespearean verse difficult to speak and very difficult for a general audience to understand.

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?

Do we not have stories to tell today? Are there not enough events and ideas in the world today worthy of treatment by playwrights? Of course there are, I hear you cry, and playwrights continually do exactly that you say. BUT and this is the point, it is extremely difficult to get a new play on in a theatre in the UK. Most regional theatres do at most one new play a year. The rest of the repertoire is made up of modern or historical classics. The West End is dominated by ‘classic’ revivals and 20-year old musicals. New plays are generally relegated to the low budget fringe theatre and performed in venues seating 50-100 punters.

Today our theatre is not a vibrant part of our modern culture, it is part of the heritage industry. One of the major justifications for state subsidy of the theatre is the tourism it stimulates. So does this mean the RSC, National Theatre and the West End are simply no more than historic tourist attractions? If so why do regular theatregoers have such a sense of their own moral and intellectual superiority? If going to see Macbeth at the RSC is no different than visiting the Shakespeare’s Birthplace tourist attraction, or Kenilworth Castle, then what’s the big deal?

So what on earth is going on here? Why can we not have a rational debate about Shakespeare? 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 sort of defining orthodoxy 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 more educated and informed you need to be to ‘appreciate’ an art form then the more your appreciation of that art form demonstrates your elite status. Shakespeare is difficult to appreciate; ask anyone who has been tortured by it in school! But it was not written by Shakespeare to be difficult. Shakespeare’s plays were written for the appreciation of largely illiterate, popular, commercial, audiences. The ‘difficulty’ of Shakespeare is not based in its intellectual complexity or even the literary genius of its poetic language. The ‘difficulty’ of Shakespeare is that it is written in an obsolete form of English that is 450 years old. The willingness to overcome that linguistic ‘difficulty’ is what grants you membership of the cultured middle classes. Your willingness to work hard to appreciate the form despite the linguistic difficulties demonstrates your commitment to civilised middle class values.

And this is at the core of the outraged reactions I get when making the surely uncontroversial statement that I am not an uncritical fan of a particular Elizabethan writer. Appreciating Shakespeare has become a symbol of acceptance of a whole range of middle class cultural ideas. To say ‘I don’t like Shakespeare’, is to reject the ‘authority’ of all the elite experts, the academics, theatre critics and artistic directors. To say ‘I don’t like Shakespeare’, is apparently to say I don’t like the theatre at all nor classical music or ballet and art and everything civilised. To say ‘I don’t like Shakespeare’, is to say I side with the ‘plebs’ who would tear civilisation down and replace it with wall to wall X Factor and super hero movies. To say ‘I don’t like Shakespeare’, is to say that English is not the world’s greatest language and that England is not an exceptional country. To say ‘I don’t like Shakespeare’, is to say I’m not part of the civilised ‘middle class’, that I am not ‘one of us’, that I am one of the uneducated masses who wish to tear down everything decent and civilised.

In fact, I said no such thing. All I said was, ‘I don’t like Shakespeare’. All I said was that after reading and watching Shakespeare’s plays for over 40 years and using my own rational, critical faculties, I have come to the conclusion that the plays of Shakespeare are massively over-rated. That’s all I have said.

In my view out of 37 plays attributed to Shakespeare only about half a dozen are really any good. This is unsurprising with such a massive output and indeed a pretty good record by anyone’s standards but it's a more moderate response to the writer’s oeuvre than the worship of every line he ever wrote that is so common today. I also think that by the critical standards of today, even Shakespeare’s ‘good’ plays are all over the place in terms of structure, plotting and characterisation.

The entire plot of Romeo And Juliet, for example, rests on a drug that allows Juliet to fake her own death. No such drug exists or ever has existed. Shakespeare simply invented it to allow him to overcome a plotting problem. This might be acceptable in a play like Twelfth Night or The Tempest that are clearly set in magical, ‘other worlds’, but in Romeo And Juliet, which is set in the real, contemporary world of Shakespeare, the drug is just a cheap trick and no playwright writing for at least the last 200 years would have been allowed to get away it.

Sometimes people respond to such criticisms by reference to the poetry of Shakespeare’s language. They claim that the beauty of Shakespeare’s language overcomes these other manifest weaknesses and renders them insignificant. Just think about that for a minute. Do you buy it? Would you buy it in reference to any other writer? We are being asked to forgive all the ‘scriptwriting 101’ errors of Shakespeare on the basis of his beautiful, poetic use of the English language, which as we’ve already established is written in an obsolete form most people simply can’t understand.

My contention is that no one would accept this in any other writer in English or indeed any other language. With Shakespeare we are asked to set aside our own critical faculties, we are told that if we find Shakespeare boring then the fault lies within us not with the writing. We are told that if we find elements of Shakespeare’s plotting or dramatic structure weak or implausible then that illustrates our blindness to his greatness, rather than a problem with Shakespeare’s writing.

This is surely irrational, and indicative that Shakespeare has achieved a ‘cult’ status. Shakespeare’s plays have attained the status of religious texts that cannot be criticised – to criticise Shakespeare as a writer is to deny his unique creative genius and has become the cultural equivalent to denying the divinity of a Christ or Mohammed. And just as religious heretics must be silenced and punished so must the heretical critics of Shakespeare, the beloved one.

It is interesting to note that the ‘cult’ of Shakespeare as the ‘special one’, rather than an appreciation of Shakespeare as part of the cannon 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.

Shakespeare was a central plank of this claim to British Exceptionalism. The English language had given rise to Chaucer, Milton, Wordsworth, and of course the greatest writer in world literature, William Shakespeare. Surely a nation that could produce such brilliance must be destined to greatness!? Thus Shakespeare became a literary equivalent to Nelson or Wellington, an Imperial hero confirming Britain’s greatness.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that the idea that the ‘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 Shakespeare’s 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. (Sound familiar?) This is of course deeply political, and deeply reactionary.

Even as late as the mid 19th Century Shakespeare was known as a great playwright along with Johnson, Marlowe etc, but he did not have the ‘cult’ status that he does today. Indeed, in the 19th Century it was common for producers to re-write Shakespeare’s plays introducing theatrical effects like floods and fires to the narrative and changing a sad ending for a happy one.

However, today the ‘cult’ of Shakespeare entirely dominates UK theatre. We fund the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre puts on Shakespeare, every Rep in the UK puts on at least one Shakespeare production a year. Schools, universities and colleges all mount endless productions of Shakespeare. The recent rebuild of the RSC theatre at Stratford cost the taxpayer £112 million plus £5 million from the lottery to keep the theatre staff employed for 2 years while all the theatres were closed!

If the time, money and creative effort that today goes into performing Shakespeare were put into performing new plays, we would be living in a new Golden Age of the theatre.