Shakespeare wrote his plays nearly 450 years ago. At that time 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, to gain the displeasure of the monarch could easily (and often did) end in your beheading; the concepts of equality before the law, universal suffrage, and women’s rights as we know them today were unthinkable. England in the 1570-80’s was a brutal, religiously extremist, totalitarian regime that makes modern day Iran look like a liberal paradise.
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 very difficult to speak intelligibly and very difficult for a general audience to understand.
Until the 19th Century Shakespeare was known as a great playwright along with Johnson, Marlowe etc but he did not have the prominence that he does today.
Indeed even 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.
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In our culture it is perfectly acceptable to say “I don’t like the plays of Christopher Marlowe” But to say “I don’t like the plays of William Shakespeare” is to commit a cultural cardinal sin and to expose oneself as an ignoramus or cultural Philistine. It is simply not acceptable for an educated or intelligent person to say they do not care for Shakespeare – the argument goes that if they do not like Shakespeare then they must by definition be either uneducated or stupid – or both.
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In the UK today 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 rebuild of the RSC theatre at Stratford is costing the tax payer £112 million plus £5 million from the lottery to keep the theatre staff employed for 2 years when all the theatres are closed!
If the time money & creative effort that today goes into performing Shakespeare were put into performing new plays we would surely be living in a Golden Age of the theatre.
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 the 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 genius our cultural elite say he is; or is it because liking Shakespeare has become a sort of defining religious orthodoxy for membership of that cultural elite?
Then we come to the question of why we constantly perform plays that are hundreds of years old anyway? (i.e. not just Shakespeare but the Classical Canon in general). If drama plays a part in defining and redefining human society how does putting on plays that helped define a previous age 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 Reps do maybe one new play a year. The rest of the repertoire is made up of modern or historical classics. The West End is dominated by revivals and musicals 20 years old. New plays are generally relegated to the low budget fringe and performed in theatres seating 50-100 punters.
Our theatre since WW2 has become completely backward looking. Today our theatre is not a vibrant part of our modern culture it is part of the heritage industry. Indeed one of the major justifications for state subsidy of the theatre is the tourism it stimulates. So does this mean the RSC is simply no more than a historic tourist attraction?
Film and TV are more central to our culture today and generally far less backward facing but it has to be said that TV in the UK is also obsessively concerned with adapting classic novels.
There seems to be some sort of moral idea that individual members of the audience will be ‘improved’ simply by exposure to a classic novel told through TV, not by reading the novel you understand, simply from watching the story on TV. It is as if people believe that these stories simply by being ‘classic’ have some sort of morally improving quality.
Where could such an idea come from?
And we are not arguing here about the aesthetic merit of an individual playwright, the argument remains the same regardless of the quality of the play. i.e. A great play that is 450 years old is still linguistically, politically and philosophically situated in a world that has not existed for 450 years.
And again I am not suggesting that we cease all production of the ‘classics’ I am merely asking whether our backward looking obsession with work from previous ages is healthy for our own society?
I Am Not A Number
Political and Philosophical Dispatches From An Individual Living In A Society