This Monday I spent the day at Leicester Grammar school as part of a sixth form day that they hosted. My colleague Nick and I hosted a number of sessions and rounded off the day with a question and answer session. I always look forward to these sessions because they are truly spontaneous requiring me to think on my feet more than to teach a (fairly) planned session. I always hope we will be asked some thought provoking questions.
And we were. We were asked ‘Did Shakespeare write Shakespeeare?’, ‘Was Shakespeare bisexual?’ ‘Did Shakespeare ever made a mistake?’ (More on that next week) ‘Why has Shakespeare lasted 400 years?’ ‘Will we be studying Shakespeare in another 400 years?’ and ‘Could any other writer ever be as famous as Shakespeare and if so who?’
This last took me a few moments to consider and I have been thinking about it since. Shakespeare’s fame is surely only partly accounted for by his excellence. It is also a result of his being in the right place at the right time. For example
- His works still speak to us about the human and social condition because he was writing at a time when our modern ideologies were emerging. For instance the idea and idealization of romantic love developed during Shakespeare’s lifetime into something we recognise today.
- His works are readable (at least reasonably so) because he wrote at a time when language was settling towards its modern forms. Chaucer for instance enjoys less fame because he is less accessible.
- Shakespeare’s work was preserved at a time when the preservation of literature was expanding. Printing presses meant more literature could be printed and increased literacy in the population meant that there were more people to buy and read literature.
- After Shakespeare’s death although there was a period when the theatres were closed, when they re-opened it was to an audience hungry for drama. An audience, who enjoyed, adapted, shared and preserved Shakespeare’s works.
- As England expanded its political influence Shakespeare became part of that, so that with colonial ‘education’ programmes came an appreciation of English literature and Shakespeare.
- As popular writers during the Romantic and Victorian age were steeped in their literary history they were influenced by and made reference to Shakespeare, helping to spread and preserve Shakespeare’s fame.
- And once Shakespeare became embedded in school and university education systems across the world his fame was assured.
These are just 7 reasons why historical circumstance and Shakespeare’s greatness combined to make Shakespeare so famous today. But it was really the second part of the question that flummoxed me. Could these things happen again? Could history and society combine to select a writer who will be famous for the next 400 years? Who would this be?
I don’t know, I suggested the Beatles as possible contenders. My grandparents knew of them and their (hypothetical) great grandchildren still know them. Knowledge of their songs will last 100 years at least. But 400?
The conditions of global information sharing are right for someone to be remembered, celebrated and studied for the next 400 years, but by the same token contenders today must stand out from a much larger field. Can it be done and if so who is to do it?