Bad comedy and bardolatry: on the politics of Shakespeare in the age of mechanical reproduction

It’s 400 years since Shakespeare died, and Kate Bradley doesn’t care.


This year, the BBC tells me, ‘Shakespeare Lives’. Apparently, it’s 400 years since Shakespeare died, and the BBC is using it as an excuse to saturate iPlayer with programmes on the Bard, ranging from heavy-going several-hour theatre productions and gushing discussion panels to light-hearted takes on Shakespeare’s comedies.

It doesn’t surprise me that the BBC is pushing this initiative for all it’s worth. As an artsy, soft-nationalist broadcaster with a history of patronising its public, it would be disappointingly out-of-character if the BBC passed up the chance to get Ian McKellen and David Tennant to educate us about High Art. What surprises me more is that people with radical political instincts seem willing to put up with it – or even, in some cases, to join in with the Bardolatry.

It’s not radical to reclaim Shakespeare, for loads of reasons. Let me count the ways.

Shakespeare, the Civilizing Force

Back in times of olde, Shakespeare lived and died a middling success. Scholars today don’t know much about him, but we know he worked his way up from a modest background by putting on his plays and eventually saved up enough to strike out as a minor capitalist, buying his own theatre and selling tickets to posher audiences. In other words, he lived the British petit-bourgeois dream: he climbed from entertaining his own class to entertaining the class above him.

Shakespeare’s star waxed and waned in the centuries following his death, and didn’t become secure as a Barometer of Good Taste until much later in history, when he was enlisted as part of a late-Victorian nationalist canon-building project spearheaded by Matthew Arnold. Arnold wanted to civilise the world one colony at a time, teaching Shakespeare as a way of conveying “universal values” to the (newly global) working classes. That the “uncivilized” peoples of the world might have their own culture – their own histories and canons and measures of literary value – was entirely overlooked by Arnold, as it’s overlooked by many university English Literature syllabuses today.

As a result of this history of cultural imperialism, liking and performing Shakespeare have always been regarded as part of being aspirational. If you’re working-class, or Black, or even (God help you) a woman, you can aspire to play a role in Hamlet to prove that you and your whole demographic are able to hit benchmarks set by the talented, successful white middle-classes. It’s on these terms that we’ve seen Adrian Lester lauded, both on the BBC recently and in the press: The Guardian celebrated his magnetic characterisation of Hamlet, not forgetting to add that he was “dreadlocked” to prove that Shakespeare can be inclusive.

Nevertheless, the Shakespeare industry isn’t exactly a hotbed of progressivism. Aside from a few daring efforts (which are nevertheless part of his continuing prominence), Shakespeare productions are still mostly tawdry, traditionalist affairs performed in Elizabethan garb. This is especially true on the amateur stage, where Shakespeare represents a respect for history and high culture. It’s also true, to a lesser extent, of the BBC’s lauded Hollow Crown series, now being reshown as part of their latest Shakespeare drive. Over time, the productions seem to get longer and more faithful to Shakespeare’s meandering scripts. There’s only so much loaded silence I can take before I start thinking about all the talented young playwrights who could be getting that airtime.

Casting for Shakespeare plays still overwhelmingly favours white actors and men. Many argue that this is to keep “historical verisimilitude”, since everything else in twenty-first century performances of Shakespeare is true to history, right down to the microphones and lighting rigs. The real reason is probably more to do with the cultural capital placed on directing and performing Shakespeare, and the way discrimination and inequality still intertwine with the threads of power: it takes years of training and free labour to get into theatre, so the ‘top’ – where Shakespeare inevitably resides – is crowded out with only the most privileged of its protégés. In that world, Shakespeare’s role is to institutionalise and cement privileged actors’ and directors’ cultural capital. Ian McKellen and Kenneth Brannagh are much-loved examples of this trend, both knighted for their services to delivering monarchist propaganda in booming voices.

Shakespeare, the Shibboleth

Now he’s thoroughly canonized, liking Shakespeare is read as a sign of someone’s intelligence and discernment from a very early age. Macbeth, which should definitely be at least a 15, was foisted upon me at 11 years old in my state primary school. I remember I found the plot difficult to comprehend, since it would be at least 2 years before I started lusting for power or plotting the murder of my rivals. Many of the people in my class found reading challenging, and so Shakespeare was an extra reason to hate English lessons. After all, Shakespeare’s stories are hardly relatable for the average pre-teen, and he doesn’t write in English as we know it; every line is a slog through new words and syntax in language that grown adults struggle to decipher. It was difficult to see why we were being put through it.

The answer is ideology. Shakespeare is one of the shibboleths used to determine someone’s worth via Wittgensteinian language games: if you participate in the ‘game’ of discussing and celebrating Shakespeare, it marks you out as educated and witty (Wittgenstein, incidentally, agreed with me about Shakespeare). Familiarity and comfort with Shakespeare is a ticket to institutional respect. I had some secondary-school teachers who admitted as much: we had to be taught Shakespeare in case any of us wanted to study at Oxford or Cambridge, or anywhere else where we’d be side-eyed off High Table if we didn’t understand Tarquin’s joke about Othello.

In school, Shakespeare is the test which separates those who have the background, confidence and inclination to achieve what Pierre Bourdieu calls “distinction” from those who do not. Children whose families have a middle-class taste profile and a bit of money can help their kids by taking them to the theatre to experience Shakespeare’s unfathomableness in full technicolour. Children who do not have this privilege, if they do not hear the “magic” of Shakespeare’s poetry, are told that they are the ones who are lacking.

Shakespeare plays a part in the brutal tiering of children very early on in their lives, marking them out by class-background, willingness to play up to liberal aspiration, and confidence in their own ability – not by creativity, passion for the subject, or any particular talent for critical thought which couldn’t be proven in the more hospitable setting of, for example, Benjamin Zephaniah’s poetry. The beauty of dispensing with the traditional canon is that I could have named anyone there, and we’d have to debate who deserved to take up a place in the syllabus. God forbid – students might start feeling like they had a right to question the value of the books they were asked to read!

Shakespeare, the national hero

Part of Shakespeare’s role in curricula is to inculcate a sense of Britishness – transmitting, as both Matthew Arnold and Michael Gove might say, “British values”. Arguably, amongst these values are anti-Semitism, sexism, racism, and mockery of the poor. A quick Google or JStor hunt reveals vast debates about Shakespeare’s portrayals of all sorts of marginalised groups, many of them ending in a fairly across-the-board thumbs-down. Sure, the debates are worth having, and our heroes don’t have to be politically pure to be worth respecting. But as it stands, discussions of Shakespeare do not create a friendly environment for questioning: through constant veneration, his work is raised above real criticism, creating apologism where historicisation would be preferable and giving the more outdated and bigoted of his implications free reign in the classroom and the wider public.

10 Things I Hate About You, for example (a popular film adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew), is wonderful, except for the fact it ends with the badass female protagonist’s “taming”, a sexist plot resolution in true Shakespearean style that turns my rebellious namesake’s fuck-you temperament into a bland conformity. We can and should historicise Shakespeare’s sexism, but we shouldn’t excuse it when it’s transplanted into the modern day and fed back to teenagers as part of something more ‘highbrow’ (read: ‘better’) than the average movie. Bardolatry then delegitimises my anger at the film’s hollow ending – when I criticised it once, I was asked by friends, “But isn’t it Shakespeare?”, as if the Bard should be above all challenge.

Shakespeare

Source: Wikimedia Commons; Shakespeare looking down at us from his podium

While debates rage in the left-leaning academy over whether Shakespeare is saveable, other voices celebrate Shakespeare far more uncritically for his fustier views. On the British National Party’s website, a writer listed only as “A Patriot” praises Shakespeare’s monarchism, deriding Shakespeare’s critics as “fringe lunatics and traitors” – a label I’m proud to bear. That’s not to say that just because the BNP like it, I can’t – both I and the BNP like the seaside and pie and mash, and that’s fine by me. However, the BNP like Shakespeare because he’s so easy to co-opt into their narratives of a grand British history, both in his monarchism, his conservative values, and in his ready-made role as an airbrushed figurehead for British – or, more specifically, English – ‘greatness’.

Humming along in the background of all these debates, the Shakespeare industry pumps out profit to anyone savvy enough to cash in, using Shakespeare as a symbol of Britishness and Britishness as a way to sell Shakespeare in a downward spiral of chauvinism and mindless reverence. The Shakespeare industry in 2016 is as cynical about its brand as any glitzy pop act, generating vast profits and cornering the self-aware English graduate market like no other. It’s capitalists that love Shakespeare most – and usually, the pretentious ones.

Shakespeare duck

Shakespeare’s ‘Celebriduck’ in the colours of the Union Flag, ready for the mass market (source: celebriducks.com)

Shakespeare, the Redeemable?

Some on the Left leap to defend Shakespeare against this kind of criticism. Popular critics like Stephen Greenblatt argue that Shakespeare is too good to lose to traditionalists who’d strangle his poetry with RP accents. Akala, with the Hip Hop Shakespeare Company, does a lot of work to emancipate the Bard from his conservative torchbearers by adapting his plays for modern audiences and arguing for his relevance in tackling big social problems like racism. I respect them for these efforts, and maybe it’s worth giving a go. But then, part of me thinks: if you don’t believe Shakespeare is intrinsically better than other writers who get far less attention, what’s the point in all this labour? Why bolster the myth?

Ah, but it begs the question, so I’m told – the question which haunts all anti-Bardolaters, whipped out as a trump card after all our arguments about context and reception are spent. “Don’t you think Shakespeare is good, though?”

The thing is: nobody knows if Shakespeare’s good. By the time you’re old enough to have spent countless hours in the classroom being judged on your ability to pronounce the word “prithee”, you’re no longer able to extricate the quality of Shakespeare’s verse from the warmth or desolation of the teacher’s red pen on your homework book. In Britain at least, he’s part-and-parcel of children’s interpellation into an elitist system which reduces the vast majority in audiences to passive consumers of art, rather than active participants in its creation and reception. At this stage in time, no amount of liberal-assimilationist propaganda from Akala – however well meant – can take the elitism out of Shakespeare. Traditional academia, in which Shakespeare Studies is firmly embedded, systematically disempowers those living and thinking outside the Ivory Tower. It prevents people from feeling ownership over what society regards as “valuable” – very like elite control of the means of production prevents them from feeling ownership over what they produce.

I can understand socialists and revolutionaries who want to hold onto Shakespeare, especially if they like to read or watch his works. I respect those fighting to take Tory territory, opening up possibilities for reading Shakespeare radically. But we should watch out for the Richard Hoggart in us all: Shakespeare does not teach “universal values” any more than I do. The processes of value-formation which afforded him pride of place amongst the stars were not neutral and apolitical; they were politically-motivated and ideological. If we could strip away the bullshit, we’d be left with a guy who, like a lot of other dead white guys, wrote some plays and poems which some people connect to. We could finally accept that some of his plays are a pretty niche taste, and we wouldn’t have to sit through any more cringeworthy renditions of the comedies on BBC2.

Insofar as one could exist, a truly radical canon would be ever up for debate and rewriting; there would be no deference to holy texts. Most writers’ works are already subject to shifting receptions, so let’s not be amongst the hands holding Shakespeare above that fray, or else we join forces with the rich and powerful who employ him in their service every day (and make a pretty penny in the process). Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think we should withdraw Shakespeare from print. But why does he have to be in so much print?

I remember from my A-level English class that one of the most unintentionally humorous parts of Antony and Cleopatra was Antony’s death. He dwindled from life slowly, ramblingly, tantalising us with false death rattles, and all the while, the students in my class were keen for him to die so we could read something else. This is how I feel about Shakespeare. ‘Shakespeare Lives’, the BBC tells me – but surely, by now, it’s time for him to exeunt. (I’m even willing to play the bear.)

There is one comment

  1. jake

    Hi

    This is an interesting article. beg to differ.
    Shakespeare is popular all around the world and with many different kinds of audiences. I don’t see what is wrong with ‘high culture’, and it is something that people from all different classes can enjoy.

    i admit that learning Shakespeare in school puts one off it, or indeed off any text, but nonetheless, Shakespeare deserves his reputation. it might not be to your taste, but thats neither here nor there.

    I don’t see why it is necessary to read everything ‘radically’. I mean, i can read something, admit that it is conservative or even reactionary, but nonetheless, like it as a piece of literature. for example, Dostoyevsky.

    It seems to me that some people like ‘high culture’ – black and white, straight and gay, posh or prole – without necessarily supporting right wing parties or reactionary politics. something being studied in academia doesn’t make it bad.

    what is wrong with being a ‘passive consumer of art’? does everybody want to be “active participants in its creation and reception”? I honestly don’t know exactly what that even means.

    i’d be curious to know what you would promote as an alternative to Shakespeare?
    Isn’t a canon necessary?

    Like

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