In search of the true Shakespeare

 

He had the uncanny ability to refine human nature and psychology into an elegant turn of phrase. But was William Shakespeare also a revolutionary in portraying the social strata of Elizabethan England and its pronounced class differences? And what can contemporary Emirati authors learn from the Bard? Here is a selection of though-provoking analysis searching for the true meaning of Shakespeare in our time.

To be, or not to be, relevant?

Teachers and theatre companies alike should constantly be looking to sell Shakespeare to their modern audience as Shakespeare tried to sell his work to Elizabethan audiences

 

The night I went to see a one-man performance of Macbeth was a long one. For two-and-a-half hours I watched a man, dressed all in black, sit in a pile of sand and talk to himself, sometimes in French. He didn’t even mime the sword fights. I was thoroughly unimpressed as a nine-year-old and looking back on it ten years later I remain thoroughly unimpressed.

 

In an age of modern values it is hard for your average student to relate to Shakespeare. Whether it’s the forced marriage and psychological torture of Katherina to make her obedient in The Taming of the Shrew, the racism of Othello or even the star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet — a 13-year-old girl marrying the day after they met at a party. I can’t imagine that relationship was going to stand the test of time.

 

It’s been 400 years since Shakespeare shuffled off this mortal coil and 16th century Elizabethan England was not the most progressive of societies. The transatlantic slave trade, described by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon as “one of the greatest atrocities in history”, had been going on for a hundred years and was soon to take off on a huge scale, Protestants and Catholics were massacring each other across Europe and it is hard to forget Henry VIII’s line in the BBC drama Wolf Hall upon learning his wife had given birth to a daughter, instead of a hoped-for son: “Call her Elizabeth. Cancel the joust.”

 

This raises the question of whether Shakespearean literature is what we should be exposing impressionable students to in an age of university safe spaces and ‘trigger warnings’ on outdated literature. Also, is it something that students can still find engaging?

 

Arguably, yes. One of Shakespeare’s great strengths that makes him so timeless is the adaptability of his works. These last 400 years, performers have been performing Shakespeare in different ways, whether it’s portraying The Merchant of Venice in a casino setting or doing one-man performances of Macbeth (only for the diehard fan, really), the key is to keep it engaging to a modern audience.

 

A great failing that I experienced in the English GCSE schooling system was that 14-year-old students studying Shakespeare would often find themselves just sitting in a classroom taking turns reading aloud a book of inaccessible, dry, old English. Shakespeare wrote his works to be performed, not read out in a monotonous voice by unenthused teenagers. Instead of zealously imitating 400-year-old theatre practice and dismissing critics as unintellectual, teachers and theatre companies alike should constantly be looking to sell Shakespeare to their modern audience as Shakespeare tried to sell his work to Elizabethan audiences.

 

 

Familial betrayal

 

Take Hamlet: A prince of Denmark is visited by the ghost of his father who tells him his uncle poisoned him and stole Hamlet’s throne. Hamlet then mopes about for another 4,000 lines, feigns insanity, accidentally murders his prime minister, somehow gets himself kidnapped by pirates, drives his girlfriend insane to the point of suicide and then manages to get just about everyone in the play, including himself, killed and his country occupied by Norway. Thoroughly uninspiring and completely divorced from any real-life situations. But the fundamentally brilliant essence of this story, of familial betrayal, when adapted, can recapture the drama that the progression of time and society has eroded in the original text. Just look at the bizarre 1987 Finnish film Hamlet Goes Business that sees Hamlet’s uncle take over his father’s company and begin investing in the rubber duck market or even Disney’s wildly popular The Lion King.

 

Values can also be updated. See the teen rom-com 10 Things I Hate About You, based on The Taming of the Shrew, which portrays Katherina as an independent, opinionated woman that Patrick (Petruchio) comes to appreciate for who she is rather than, as Shakespeare wrote, who she was manipulated to become.

 

The AQA GCSE syllabus requires students to read modern, 19th century and Shakespearean literature so there isn’t a problem with a lack of diversity. Where school lessons are failing, however, is in getting Shakespeare across to students in a way that makes them actually want to read his work. He was an undeniably brilliant writer, but what is perhaps more brilliant is the adaptation and reinterpretation of his plays to make them engaging to our society and our students. The challenge is to reach a new generation that can’t see the merits of sitting in a dusty classroom, wishing they were anywhere else, reading about Hermione in A Winter’s Tale, who’s been pretending to be a statue for the last 16 years to get back at her husband.

 

Felix Vardag-Hunter will be studying History at University College London from September.

 

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Shakespeare, the reactionary bard

The man’s plays are suffused with contempt for that lower species of men, who are portrayed as greedy and grasping, and common people, who appear as nameless, faceless props

 

As a commentator true to his craft, I’ll tell you that William Shakespeare was a retrograde — a racist, a reactionary and an imperialist who mirrored the pompous ethos of the Elizabethan Age that he was a product of, an ethos that he transmitted to later generations of Englishmen and Englishwomen who absorbed it almost by osmosis.

 

This year marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and the English-speaking world, notorious for its ethnocentric smugness, will go on a binge of commemorative extravaganzas of plays, spin-offs, readings, operas and books, including (hold on to your hat!) one called Shakespeare in Swahili, that purportedly looks at the “impact” of the Bard’s work on people in Eastern and Central Africa. A New Orleans Jazz funeral will mark the Bard’s death and the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington will sponsor a 50-state tour of the First Folio.

 

The homage paid to Shakespeare, of course, precedes our time. It comes from Ben Jonson, whose enduring eulogy (which appeared in the preface to the First Folio) tells us that “He was not for an age, but for all time”; from John Dryden, who spoke of his “comprehensive soul”; and from John Milton, who spurned the idea of setting the Elizabethan playwright’s talent beside that of Sophocles. But that homage is also paid in our own time and comes from the likes of George Steiner who averred — in a paper he wrote in 1964 to mark the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s birth — that “To say that Shakespeare is not only the greatest writer who has ever lived, but who will ever live, is a perfectly rational statement”.

 

Will someone tell me what this brouhaha is all about? The man’s plays, after all, are suffused with contempt for that lower species of men, who are portrayed as greedy and grasping, and common people, who appear as nameless, faceless props. English-speaking folks, including Britain’s Prime Minister, David Cameron, who published a piece in The Views section of Gulf News last Tuesday, have written rhapsodically of the Bard’s “universal” appeal; how he enchants people in countries all over the world; and his talent for dramatising the timeless truths of the human condition. You find him relevant, we are told, at every moment and place of immediacy in our lives, whether one lives in the Indian Subcontinent or the Alaskan wilderness. And any suggestion that one may question that notion will only invite derision. Shakespeare is the transcendent Bard, is he not?

 

Not so transcendent, relevant or universal, however, if you are — though English-speaking — an Irish revisionist and contrarian critic.

 

Consider, as a case in point, Emer O’Toole, a professor of Irish Studies at Concordia University in Canada, who begs to differ. Her article, ‘Shakespeare universal? No, it’s cultural imperialism’, caused a stir when it first appeared in May, 2012, in the Guardian. In it she argued that “Shakespeare is full of classicism, sexism, racism and defunct social mores”. Hang on, there’s more. “The Taming of the Shrew ... is about as universally relevant as the chastity belt, while The Merchant of Venice ... is about as universal as the Nuremberg Laws”. And here’s the clincher from the angry Irishwoman: “So where has the idea that Shakespeare is ‘universal’ come from? Why do people the world over study and perform Shakespeare? Colonialism. That’s where, and that’s why. Shakespeare was a powerful tool of empire, transported to foreign climes along with the doctrine of European cultural superiority.”

 

And here’s my own two-cents worth of view. Shakespeare groupies, including textual scholars and literary critics, argue that, in addition to its universality, the Bard’s language has influenced generations of English speakers, both native and adoptive. It is as if the words they speak today are his. “He continues to have”, as George Steiner explained and Cameron seemed to imply in his piece in Gulf News, “a mastering grip on our speech”.

 

But, you see, that’s the problem. Language is consciousness. Language is culture. It is linked organically to a felt reality and the evolution of our sensibility. Elizabethan English drew its idiom, no less than its manners of ceremonial exchange, from the perpetual social injustices that afflicted the age, as well as the imperialist ambitions and racist fantasies that later translated as The White Man’s Burden and La Mission Civilizatrice.

 

That weld of sensibility was later bequeathed to all manner of English Cold Warrior, counter-revolutionary and racist political leaders like Winston Churchill, and to the upper classes in British society like the insufferable Crawleys of Downton Abbey, whose odiously long dinners were attended to by docile “servants” resigned to their lowly socio-economic fate downstairs. The notion that “there is a place for everyone and everyone in his place”, lest we forget, came from Elizabethan England and was resonant in Shakespeare’s plays.

 

And, finally, I will disabuse groupies obsessed with Shakespeare’s “universality”, the seemingly trans-national, trans-cultural, trans-historical nature of his oeuvre, of their conceits by indulging in a recollection.

 

In the very late 1970s, I was invited by the American University of Beirut (AUB) to deliver a series of lectures on Comparative Literature — a course that included Shakespeare’s Macbeth. My students refused to take the play seriously, dismissing it as contrived and ludicrous. How could Lady Macbeth, they asked, extrapolating from their own Arab culture where the status of a guest is sacrosanct, plan to kill Duncan in her home (“The raven himself is hoarse that croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan under my battlements”). It’s absurd. It’s laughable. It’s just not done.

 

Thematically universal? Semantically cogent? Bill, get thee, along with your groupies, to a nunnery.

 

Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.

 

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Shakespeare’s real monument is inside us

Respondents to surveys may say they are unable to identify lines from the bard, but many of them often quote him without even knowing it

 

If you are worrying that Britain is falling apart, getting more unequal, turning its back on the world or losing its humanity — and there are plenty of good reasons to be concerned about all these things at the moment — then my advice on this 400th anniversary of his death is to stop worrying for a while and think about William Shakespeare.

 

That’s because, in addition to his other talents, Shakespeare is a great provider of perspective. This does not mean that Shakespeare can tell us how to rein in the fat cats, to govern fairly or which way to vote on Europe. But it does mean he has thought about greed, stable government and sovereignty. If power’s your game, Shakespeare’s your man.

 

He is also, quite simply, the best thing that ever happened to Britain as a people. If you are tempted to castigate the institutions of modern Britain, it is surely reassuring that its greatest compatriot, the country’s ultimate gift to the world, was not a monarch, an aristocrat, a general, a conqueror or a politician, but a writer who lived in the wings of great events, rather than strutting upon the public stage.

 

As you would expect, there is a statue of Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon. There’s another in London’s Leicester Square. But the truth is that we need no public memorials to Shakespeare.

 

That’s because Shakespeare’s real monument is inside us. It is in the language one uses, the phrases one utters, the conversations they conduct, the jokes they make, the lines that make them suddenly serious, and in the images and references they reach for in order to express themselves and to imagine the country, its history and its future.

 

Last week, however, a couple of anniversary-related surveys seemed to challenge that kind of warm confidence.

 

In one, the British Council found that Shakespeare is more popular outside the United Kingdom than he is there in his own country. In the other, it turns out that more 18-to 25-year-olds are likely to recognise the lyrics of Justin Bieber than to identify a line by Shakespeare. This is water off a duck’s back. For it is no part of the case for Shakespeare to pretend, in defiance of so much evidence to the contrary, that he transcends the pernicious class divisions of the British education system or the generational patterns of cultural consumption. He obviously does not. Although Shakespeare is by a long way the closest thing that England or Britain has to a national poet, neither England nor Britain can be said to possess a common culture.

 

Fortunately, however, popularity and knowledge are not the right tests to apply; for an important part of Shakespeare’s great achievement is that he has got inside our heads without our even realising it.

 

One way of demonstrating this is to remember that Shakespeare alone contributed about 2,000 words to the English language that it had not contained before. Among these words, as listed by Bill Bryson’s book Mother Tongue, are: barefaced, critical, leapfrog, monumental, castigate, majestic, obscene, frugal, radiance, dwindle, countless, submerged, excellent, fretful, hint, hurry, lonely, summit and pedant. How would speakers of English of all generations, manage without them? Some of them have indeed already done service earlier in this piece.

 

Then there are the phrases that Shakespeare conferred on us while we weren’t looking. Bryson lists some of these too: one fell swoop, in my mind’s eye, more in sorrow than in anger, to be in a pickle, vanish into thin air, play fast and loose, the sound and the fury, cold comfort, to beggar all description, salad days, flesh and blood, tower of strength and many, many more.

 

Such was Shakespeare’s bounty that, early on in Hamlet, he managed to bequeath us two familiar catchphrases in a single sentence: “Though I am native here and to the manner born, it is a custom more honoured in the breach than the observance,” says the Danish prince. Respondents to surveys may assure researchers they are unable to identify lines from Shakespeare, but the likelihood is that many of them often quote Shakespeare without even knowing it.

 

But it is not just the words and the phrases. Don’t forget Shakespeare’s characters. The regulars may not be discussing the finer points of The Winter’s Tale in the Dog and Duck every night, but in the shape of characters such as Hamlet, Romeo, Juliet, Lady Macbeth, Falstaff and Shylock — to name only six of the more obvious ones — Shakespeare has already given us more archetypes than anyone else in the culture.

 

And so many little things too. Was there ever a writer who peopled his work with more memorable minor characters? They are a constant joy. Shakespeare created an array of gardeners, gaolers, grooms, knights, heralds, sailors, scriveners, messengers and ladies in waiting, as well as four men called Balthazar. And what lines he could bestow. Has a murderer ever been gifted such poetry as the one in Macbeth who observes, as he waits to kill Banquo: “The west yet glimmers with some streaks of day: / Now spurs the lated traveller apace / To gain the timely inn.”

 

Columnists should know their limitations. I am no Shakespeare expert. I could never write one of those brilliant scholarly pieces about Shakespeare’s late plays, his treatment of families, his understanding of love, or the books he read that have been appearing elsewhere in the Guardian this week.

 

Nevertheless the coffee mug on my desk has the names of 38 Shakespeare plays printed on it. I have now seen 37 of them — the exception is The Two Noble Kinsmen , since you ask — many of them several times. I’ve seen Richard III in Georgian, Pericles in Japanese, Coriolanus in German and a hip-hop Comedy of Errors. I’ve seen Olivier as Othello, Gielgud as Prospero, Fiona Shaw as Richard II and Judi Dench in almost everything. And I still get a tingle from the mere thought of As You Like It, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Henry IV Part I, Twelfth Night and The Tempest.

 

And I do know this. To belong to Shakespeare’s country and to think and speak in Shakespeare’s language is possibly the best break the inhabitants of Britain ever got.

 

To be rich in corn, fish, steel or oil is useful. Never knock material prosperity. But the ability to commune with the world’s most enduringly fecund poet and playwright in his own tongue opens up the world of the imagination, the mind and the senses in ways that are a privilege to share, and a deep responsibility to pass on.

 

— Guardian News & Media Ltd

 

Martin Kettle is an associate editor of the Guardian and writes on British, European and American politics, as well as the media, law and music.

 

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Emirati writers can learn from Shakespeare

Part of the excitement of delving into a literary adventure is to question why particular prose such as Shakespeare’s can travel the world and mesmerise readers for centuries

 

For four centuries, William Shakespeare has captivated people all over the world with his spellbinding collections of plays and poetry. This year marks the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare and yet, it has inspired a series of impressive and imaginative festivities in honour of the extraordinary playwright from Stratford-upon-Avon.

 

The grand cultural programme is rich, ranging from theatre productions, poetry readings, to exhibitions of his memorabilia, contemporary artworks, and even offering a free, six-week online course by the British Council that explores the life, works and legacy of Shakespeare. Top on my wish-list is to wander the stunning cottage gardens of Anne Hathaway (Shakespeare’s wife), where tourists are promised a live recital of his lulling sonnets, then slowly drift off to a heart-shaped lavender maze, followed by a tranquil walk along the woodland plotted with many of the trees, blooms and roses featured in Shakespeare’s writings. I already feel myself turning into Juliet.

 

In all honesty, reading Shakespeare has not been a love-at-first-sight moment for me. I can still remember the unified groans exhaled by my classmates and I when we were asked to glean precious pearls of wisdom amid a torrent of puzzling prose from the macabre Macbeth. However, part of the excitement of delving into a literary adventure is to question why particular prose, such as Shakespeare’s, can travel the world and mesmerise readers for centuries. Parents and teachers can play an important part in grooming tomorrow’s distinguished authors.

 

For those budding Emirati writers wishing to take their writing further, allow me to share some of the aspects that make Shakespeare’s works so distinctive.

 

Shakespeare’s eloquence in expressing the range of universal themes in simple yet eloquent prose is probably his greatest forte and the reason for his enduring popularity. His plays and poetry portray intense, yet contrasting human emotions; love, friendship, forgiveness, discord, revenge and jealousy. When we think of love, our hearts flutter at the remembrance of Romeo and Juliet. When we seek loving passages, we resort to Shakespeare’s sonnets.

 

Budding writers can seek their muse from other historical eras, cultures and realms. Shakespeare was an avid history reader and wove his imagination with dramatic historical characters and events to create the Roman plays (Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra) and his ten history plays that cover various reigning English monarchs between the 12th and 16th centuries. Shakespeare’s settings also cover other countries or realms, such as Denmark, Greece and the fairy world. Reading his works is an amazing way to travel to other cultures and historical periods, stirring up fascinating cross-cultural dialogues.

 

 

Crafting enthralling plots

 

One of the many thrills of reading Shakespeare’s works is to be dazzled by his inventive ability to make words dance on paper. No author in the western world has had the ability to pen a myriad of memorable lines so revered by readers. If you cannot find words to express how you feel about something, you may seek inspiration from Shakespeare’s prose. Some favourites of mine include: To be, or not to be: that is the question (Hamlet), Stars, hide your fires; Let not light see my black and deep desires (Macbeth), The course of true love never did run smooth (A Midsummer’s Night Dream). Master dialogue and you shall be quoted devotedly.

 

Crafting enthralling and gripping plots is essential to keeping the attention span of readers long enough to finish reading the work and revel about it for centuries. The era during which Shakespeare wrote had a profound influence on his writing style. During Shakespeare’s time, authors wrote plays for the enjoyment of the masses, especially for those who were illiterate. Sophisticated productions were almost non-existent and that is the reason why dialogue and plot were considered the most important parts of plays. Also, not many people may ponder about the fact that Shakespeare was himself an actor. Thus, he had the cleverness to pen action-packed stories with lots of memorable scenes that we could relate to even today.

 

Equally fit to play the part is the troop of charming characters, whom we grow to adore, empathise with and remember long after finishing their stories. Whose heart has not ached for Romeo and Juliet, the star-crossed lovers doomed to separation because of their feuding families? Did we not, for a moment, empathise with the hateful moneylender Shylock from The Merchant of Venice because Venetians have neglected the rights of minority groups that he must remind them that he has “hands, organs, dimensions, senses” similar to theirs.

 

In A Midsummer’s Night Dream, we enjoy a revelry of action as two love-struck Athenians, Lysander and Demetrius, fall in love with the same girl Hermia while her best friend, Helena, is enraged with jealousy.

 

So you see, classic literature can be truly appreciated when we unravel its beautiful and mysterious depths. This year makes one thing clear: beautiful literature will remain eternally cherished and preserved. Shakespeare’s transcendent works are a beacon of inspiration, creating more beautiful works with time. His characters are endlessly fascinating, his language, though sophisticated, is sublime, richly varied, and movable across the globe. What more can a writer hope to achieve for his works? As Portia from The Merchant of Venice says, “How far that little candle throws his beams”.

 

 

 

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