By Gordon Parsons in Britain:
Of his, and our time
Thursday 21st April 2016
THERE are many Shakespeares.
There’s the Stratford lad whose private life, despite many biographies, remains relatively unknown. In consequence an inventive industry, questioning whether such a “nonentity” could possibly have been the playwright and poet whose achievement is recognised as the Everest of world literature, has spawned a mountain of publications.
There’s the writer whose texts are seen by the educational establishment as necessary examination fodder for generations of children who mostly will never again wish to read or even to see Shakespeare on stage, his natural and essential habitat.
Then there’s the national icon whose name can be employed to stir up patriotic spirits in time of need and the commercial “Shakesploitation,” whereby cigars are only one of the myriad products that use the Bard tag.
But both his huge and creative vocabulary and his poetry live in the bloodstream of the language.
They inform everyday conversation, so that Colonel Tim Collins can rouse his troops for battle in Kuwait with an extemporised version of Henry V’s “band of brothers” Agincourt speech and, less auspiciously, there’s the Royal Marine sergeant, unluckily videoed paraphrasing Hamlet. “Shuffle off this mortal coil, you cunt,” he told a wounded Afghan prisoner before shooting him in cold blood.
Undeniably, the plays have captured the imagination and spoken to the generations in the theatre and now on the screen over the 400 years since his death, the quatercenteneary of which is marked on Saturday.
Innumerable books have attempted to answer why this should be the case, literary specialists have analysed the poetry and the characters, while directors and actors have explored the stagecraft and thematic meaning in productions in every kind of venue from village halls to the Royal Shakespeare and National Theatre stages.
Whatever the works may have meant to previous ages — grotesquely adapted in the 17th century or played alongside pantomimes and circus acts in the 19th — they have engaged with our troubled modern world with a particular acuity.
Victor Kiernan, one of that outstanding group of Marxist historians, including Eric Hobsbawm and EP Thompson, spent nearly 50 years studying the 16th century, which shared with today the unnerving crisis of a fundamentally changing world. The movement from feudalism to early capitalism questioned every element of life as codes of behaviour, ethics, class and economic power were going through tectonic shifts.
Few would deny that our own world is undergoing momentous upheavals, from post-capitalism’s decay into an unknown future.
Kiernan’s exhaustive research led, at the age of 80, to the 1993 Shakespeare: Poet and Citizen, now republished.
His detailed knowledge of the plays and the period they emerged from give an enormous authority to his analysis of the forces at work in them. He covers the entire canon, including the sonnets and the comedies but his analysis of the histories is central.
As an historian, Kiernan was understandably more interested in Shakespeare the citizen than the poet, believing that “all good critics are historians” who cannot divorce literature from the socio-political world that spawned it.
If he believes that the sonnets would not be much read if they had been written by anyone other than Shakespeare, he finds them most interesting in their range of social and political implications. An example is “lease” in the line “Summer’s lease hath all too short a date,” which, according to Kiernan, reminds us that “short leases were weapons in the hands of landowners who were busy ejecting superfluous tenants.”
He maintains that “past politics fascinated Shakespeare from the beginning so obviously it is scarcely possible to think that he was not interested in the politics of his own time.”
Half of his plays, including the great tragedies — treated in depth by Kiernan in his later Eight Tragedies of Shakespeare — are set in historical times. His central analysis of the English history cycles, mapping the 14th and 15th centuries of civil turmoil from the reigns of Richard II to Richard III, captures the essence of Shakespeare’s instinctive understanding of the forces at play in power and personal politics, forces that emerge in all his works.
Here was a world, like both Shakespeare’s and our own, struggling to emerge from a crumbling system into a new world of hope and fear. His plays give “a human contour to impersonal tides of change.”
In the “feminine” world of the comedies, the heroines collectively demonstrate “the vision of a humanity not yet in being,” with an intelligence, strength and sensitivity greater than any of the male characters.
By comparison with the histories, the comedies centre on individuals, with the group “much less a microcosm of society.” Yet the comedies do mirror a society “permeated by money and money-making.”
Primarily, though, Shakespeare was and is an entertainer.
But, as Kiernan has it, “every genuine poet is a teacher” and for his contemporary audiences and those of today he reflects a dramatic image of the past “in order to understand the present better and what was needed to understand the future better than either.”