Picture of Gabriel Egan G a b r i e l   E g a n  .  com

Shakespeare at 452

"Part One: Why bother with Shakespeare?" by Gabriel Egan

William Shakespeare died 400 years ago, at the age of 52. In those 52 years he wrote poems and plays that are now being read by an estimated 1 billion people for recreation, work, and (most commonly) education, making him easily the world's most widely read writer. There are competing theories to account for this. Twenty or thirty years ago it was usual to attribute Shakespeare's global reach to the British Empire and colonialism: they came with their Bibles in one hand and their Shakespeare Complete Works in the other. (The long-running British Broadcasting Corporation's radio show Desert Island Discs, started in 1942, still allows its hypothetical castaways these two books as the default consolation for their cultural loss, and invites them to choose one additional luxury to supplement these necessities.) The claim that British colonialism exported Shakespeare was not hard to substantiate by looking at the former colonies in the 1980s, when Ania Loomba--who identified herself as one of more than 700 teachers of English Literature at Delhi University--remarked that there were probably more students studying Shakespeare at her institution than in all the British universities put together.

One now hears a lot less about Shakespeare being a tool of colonialism than was common 30 years ago, and more about how colonized peoples have appropriated and rewritten the Shakespeare works that were forced on them. But the aura of coercion, of a literary culture foisted on the unwilling, still lingers about his works. This is perhaps because his writings are forced upon the most vulnerable of all readers, the young, in the apparent belief that they are character building. In this, Shakespeare has somewhat replaced the learning of Latin, a language Shakespeare himself was made to study at school and perhaps recalled struggling with:

EVANS That is a good William. What is he, William, that does lend articles?
WILLIAM Articles are borrowed of the pronoun, and be thus declined. Singulariter nominativo: 'hic, haec, hoc'.
EVANS Nominativo: 'hig, hag, hog'. Pray you mark: genitivo: 'huius'. Well, what is your accusative case?
WILLIAM Accusativo: 'hinc'--
EVANS I pray you have your remembrance, child. Accusativo: 'hing, hang, hog'.
(The Merry Wives of Windsor Act 4, Scene 1)

Shakespeare assigns the second of his seven 'ages of man' to the school-child, with "satchel | And shining morning face, creeping like snail | Unwillingly to school" (As You Like It, Act 2, Scene 7). This suggests a resistance to formal education that sits awkwardly with his own works' centrality to the teaching of literary appreciation across the world.

A new justification of teaching Shakespeare to the young has emerged in recent years from the left. It is not that his works are inherently improving, goes the argument, but that everybody behaves as if Shakespeare's works are important, and so anyone lacking knowledge of them is excluded from the cultural conversations that promote progress in life. Whereas a previous generation of teachers, in reaction against the assumption that reading Shakespeare was morally improving, chose books they hoped would engage their charges by exploring concerns they might actually share, a new generation of teachers takes a more instrumentalist approach. We need Shakespeare on our curriculum, an inner-city English teacher is now likely to say, because our children will fall behind if we ignore him.

Anyone on the left will readily appreciate such concern for working-class children's education, but it seems unfortunate to leave pleasure out of the discussion. If a knowledge Shakespeare is merely a necessity, like knowing long division or the location of Polynesia, then perhaps we lose what makes English Literature such a potentially thrilling and radicalizing part of everyone's school-days. But we should be wary too of what C. P. Snow 50 years ago identified as the isolationist tendency in the Arts, manifested as a disdain for other more practical subjects. After all, for some school-children the Mathematics or Geography classes may be the most thrilling parts of the day, and these subjects too can radicalize the mind. Beginning to appreciate just how bad the numbers look on global warming, and which Pacific islands will be submerged first, is as likely to turn a young mind towards our shared humanity as does Shylock's speech "Hath not a Jew eyes? . . . If you prick us do we not bleed?" (The Merchant of Venice, Act 3, Scene 1).

Unlike a schoolroom class on Mathematics or Geography, however, children's English Literature classes are not really laying the foundation for what comes next but instead throw them in at the deep end. Shakespeare's poems and plays studied for a PhD are essentially the same words as those studied for a GCSE, and the sense of encountering an alien world does not diminish with increased familiarity. If anything it becomes more acute. This, perhaps, is where Shakespeare's true value as a mind-expanding phenomenon lies, in making his readers broaden their horizons to imagine worlds quite unlike their own. It is not simply that the plays depict a sixteenth-century Europe or 5th-century BCE Rome that is unlike our world, but that his characters too imagine worlds quite unlike their own. Roman and English citizens wonder aloud about republicanism, the status of women, and how wealth should be distributed.

In Shakespeare, monarchy in particular is held up for robust scrutiny. The characters around the 'slacker' Prince Hal are right to be fearful when he inherits the English throne to become Henry V, even as he offers what he thinks (but they might not) is a reassuring comparison: "This is the English not the Turkish court; | Not Amurath an Amurath succeeds, | But Harry Harry" (Henry IV Part Two, Act 5, Scene 2). In the sequel, Harry woos his future wife with the promise that their son "shall go to Constantinople and take the Turk by the beard" (Henry V, Act 5, Scene 2). Readers and playgoers are thus invited to consider whether Harry fils echoing the Christian braggodocio of Harry père--who swore "To chase these pagans in those holy fields" (Henry IV Part One, Act 1, Scene 1)--shows England's rulers' commendable consistency in foreign policy, or their terrifying adventurism.


"Part Two: Making Sense of Shakespeare" by Gabriel Egan

Do we really understand Shakespeare the way his contemporaries did? There are plenty of opportunities for the modern reader to misunderstand what Shakespeare's characters are saying. One problem is what linguists call the 'false friend' word: we think we understand it but in fact the modern sense is quite different from the sense used in Shakespeare's time. Marcellus and Horatio try to stop Hamlet from following the ghost of Hamlet's father, which seems to beckon him away for a private conference that they fear could be dangerous. Hamlet violently rebuffs their efforts to restrain him, crying "By heav'n, I'll make a ghost of him that lets me" (1.4). The word lets seems quite wrong here: surely he means he'll make a ghost of anyone who won't let him follow and talk to his father's spirit. The verb to let has reversed in meaning since Shakespeare's time: it used to mean preventing something rather than permitting it. British passports still use the word in Hamlet's sense, requiring foreigners to "allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance".

    Perhaps the most widely misunderstood Shakespeare word is wherefore, as in "O Romeo, |  Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?" (2.1). The dramatic context of a young woman looking out from her bedroom balcony encourages readers to suppose that she wonders where her lover is, but wherefore actually means why. This is odd. She is asking why he is called Romeo rather than something else that would not be an obstacle to their love: "Deny thy father and refuse thy name, | Or . . . I'll no longer be a Capulet". It would make more sense (and scan just as well) if the second and/or third Romeo were Montague. Less well-known but more egregious is the misunderstanding of Shakespeare that is widely reproduced on posters depicting beautiful views of the countryside: "One touch of nature makes the whole world kin" (Troilus and Cressida 3.3). Far from being the source of goodness that unites diverse human cultures, by touch of nature Ulysses here means a weakness shared by all humankind: a taste for novel delights over things of true value.

    Any competent specialist on Shakespeare's language can correct readers' mistakes regarding the meaning of his words; often it only takes a glance at the dramatic context. But should we conclude, then, that all of his meanings are available to us today so long as we take the trouble to recover them? Marxists are not the only intellectuals who harbour serious doubts that we can make the past so easily accessible to readers in the present. What if the underlying habits of thought and unspoken assumptions from Shakespeare's time are just so different to ours that we make similar 'false friend' errors regarding whole categories and concepts? Take the barely suppressed homosexual desire between Antonio and Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice, which no-one noticed until W. H. Auden pointed it out in 1947. Attitudes towards this desire were different in Shakespeare's time from those of today, and indeed were quite different even in Auden's time when homosexuality was a crime in Britain. In what sense can we think of Shakespeare's universal appeal when notions of moral behaviour have so radically changed?

    And it's not only sexual morality. Attitudes towards how societies should govern themselves have been revolutionized since Shakespeare's time by the rise of democracy. To understand what Richard II's contemporaries think he has done wrong, in his play, one needs more than a merely factual account of the idea of the divine right of kings. With rights, we often say today, come responsibilities, but this is not at all the view of those like Richard who believe in monarchial divine right. The Homily Against Disobedience preached from Elizabethan pulpits made it quite clear that even a bad king must not be resisted by his people, since only God could make and unmake rulers.

    Yet it is also clear that in other matters Elizabethans saw rights and responsibilities as mutually reciprocal. In the New Oxford Shakespeare Complete Works to be published later this year, the editors have (with some regret, in my case) modernized a number of occurrences of the word owe to own. Shakespeare uses owe to mean possess, as in Roderigo's remark "What a full fortune does the thicklips owe | If he can carry't thus", meaning that Othello is a made man if he can marry and keep the desirable Desdemona (Othello 1.1). Linguistically there is no editorial defence for retaining owe in such cases: the notion is of ownership, not of debt, and hence the modern word is own. But the spelling owe for the notion of possession does pleasingly, to a Marxist, suggest that for Elizabethans the principle of possession necessarily entailed its opposite, a reciprocal obligation to give things away.

    Editing Shakespeare involves making his works meaningful to modern readers, for example by modernizing his spelling (as in owe > own), but this does not imply that  the plays' meanings were stored away by him 400 years ago and have only to be carefully unwrapped by us now to be fully appreciated. Marxist cultural criticism rightly rejects the idea that literary meaning is transhistorical, transcultural and simply embedded in writing from the past. Rather, meaning is generated at the point of consumption by modern readers. In the opening words of his novel The Go-Between, L. P. Hartley observed that "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there" and--to shift geographical metaphors only slightly--writing about, criticizing, and editing Shakespeare can be seen as building a bridge to span the historical chasm that separates his time from ours. But this is only a metaphorical chasm, made merely of changes in how humans think, speak, and behave. A more apt analogy would be conversation, in which we neither speak past one another as though using different languages nor entirely adopt one another's ideas as self-evident. Rather we speak to contest meanings, to reflect upon those differences of opinion we can grasp and, unless we have given up altogether the point of talking, to modify our views accordingly. That is the kind of conversation we can still have with Shakespeare.


"Part Three: Is hakespeare Universal?" by Gabriel Egan

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.