Why Shakespeare Still Matters

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Published 23 April 2015

Published 23 April 2015

Shakespeare has mattered ever since his name first appeared in print in 1593 with his erotic and entertaining poem, Venus and Adonis. He was 29 years old. For much of the poem the goddess of love is naked and begging for sex before Adonis, but he resists her advances. Venus and Adonis was a sensation (it still can be to the first-time reader) and became the most printed of all of Shakespeare’s works in his lifetime with ten editions by the time he died in 1616. Unsurprisingly, the poem was popular among university undergraduates. In 1600, the poet and academic, Gabriel Harvey, observed that ‘the younger sort take much delight in Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis.’ Gullio, a character in one of the three Parnassus plays performed at around the same date by Cambridge students, says that he will honour ‘sweet Master Shakespeare’ and that to do so he will sleep with a copy of Venus and Adonis under his pillow.

Shakespeare certainly knew how to combine intellect with entertainment, literariness with popular appeal. He became a star, famous for a tone of voice and dramatic focus that challenged genres, broke moulds, and questioned who had the right to rule. He got under the skin of imagined rulers, as well as real ones. The courts of Queen Elizabeth I and King James I made much of Shakespeare whose companies performed before their monarch 170 times during his lifetime, and continued to do so long after his death for King Charles I, another Shakespeare enthusiast, who had grown up enjoying the plays. Shakespeare inspired his contemporaries who often alluded to his work. His friend and collaborator, John Fletcher, even wrote a sequel to The Taming of the Shrew which he called The Woman’s Prize, or The Tamer Tamed. Shakespeare has continued to be life-giving for successive generations of readers and theatre-goers. Today his popularity and significance are greater than ever.

He has often been used to speak to people living within oppressive regimes, whether in apartheid South Africa, where Janet Suzman’s politically charged 1989 production of Othello at the Market Theatre, Johannesburg spoke powerfully to white and black audiences at a time when it seemed most needed, or Corinne Jaber’s brave, 2005 Afghan production of Love’s Labour’s Lost in Kabul which allowed men and women to perform together for the first time in thirty years (and at great personal cost to the actors who took part). Hamlet became (and perhaps still is) the most relevant Shakespeare play for many of the former USSR Eastern-block countries, who found in it a parable about how the state can make inert the life of an individual. And Sonnet 66 has been translated many times to speak against political regimes in which ‘art [is] made tongue-tied by authority’ (line 9).

I started relatively late, studying Macbeth with an inspirational teacher at my comprehensive school at the age of fourteen. I found within its language, story, performance (in the classroom, on audio recording and film, and in the theatre), characters and their relationships, dark imagination – which forces us to think about night, ravens, bloody daggers, murder, blood, tortured consciences, emotional and mental breakdowns, immense personal loss, trauma, and a nation torn apart by war – a power so definite and undeniable, so all-embracing of my intellectual and theatrical interests and tastes, that Shakespeare quickly became the most challenging, disturbing, and imaginative phenomenon that I had ever encountered. He wasn’t easy; I do not believe he ever has been. But if something within his work can catch you (it may be a phrase, an image, a moment of performance) then you may find yourself drawn into his landscapes, soundscapes, emotions, and thought in a way that will make it clear why he is fully deserving of his reputation.

His work can shock, amuse, move, comfort, inform, entertain, and appall. Shakespeare stares life in the face and shows us what life might be like if we hoped and imagined enough (‘Prove true, imagination, O, prove true’ says Viola in Twelfth Night, or What You Will, 3.4.367). Or, he warns us what might happen if we were to behave cruelly. The whole of King Lear seems like a timeless prophecy about the collapse of civilization. Human beings can all too soon become ‘like monsters of the deep’ and prey upon one another (The History of King Lear, 4.2.49). Shakespeare is open about human desires, whether they are sexual, political, religious, pioneering, ambitious, compassionate, or controlling. He presents emotions that he never felt (the guilt after murdering a monarch, for example), creates space for us to find something of ourselves in them, never preaches and always demands and deserves a complex response.

No one has any moral obligation to like his work but for those who do, that ‘like’ is probably best recognized as ‘love’. We seek to celebrate what we love and what matters to us, and that’s why I, with millions of others around the world, want to remember Shakespeare’s birthday every year.

Shakespeare: Ideas in Profile by Paul Edmondson is published on 23 April 2015.

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Author:Paul Edmondson

Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Follow Paul on Twitter @paul_edmondson
  • psi2u2

    It amusing that this article copies without acknowledging it the name of a publication for which I was privileged for some years to be the editor:

    http://shakespeareoxfordfellowship.org/shakespeare-matters-newsletter/

    It is quite strange the way the heretics are writing the script here. Dr. Edmondson, here’s a good blog about you:

    http://shake-speares-bible.com/2011/11/21/michael-york-to-professor-stanley-wells-and-paul-edmondson-have-you-no-sense-of-decency-sirs/

  • 45buckshot

    I’m reading a lot of Jonathan Dollimore right now (Radical Tragedy; Sex, Literature, and Censorship); I’m curious what you mean by “negative sentimentality.” I assume you mean the potential prioritizing of the darker elements in Shakespeare. Again, I’m curious, what do suppose an audience’s interests might be?

    I’m curious about your work as well; Bridget Escolme’s “Talking to the Audience” has been a very influential book on me. She discusses audience interaction as a structural goal; in what ways would your book be similar/different?

  • SBC

    Looking forward. Best of lucks!

  • Not yet: proofs are due and the book should be out later in 2015. Best wishes, HR

  • SBC

    Any idea yet on when will your book be released?

  • I am fascinated by Paul Edmonson’s comment about his attraction to Shakespeare’s “dark imagination” seen in“Macbeth” which supposedly “forces us to think about night, ravens, bloody daggers, murder, blood, tortured consciences, emotional and mental breakdowns, immense personal loss, trauma, and a nation torn apart by war.” These
    constitute for Paul the “all-embracing of my intellectual and theatrical interests and tastes.”

    There is no doubt that such macabre imagination is broadly shared by modern professionals interested in Shakespeare: in the theatre, academe, and the arts generally. Personally I do not share these views and question whether they are uniformly shared by general audiences. Indeed I am in process of publishing a book “Shakespeare’s Tragedies Re-viewed: a Spectator’s Role” citing the practices and declarations of Shakespeare’s European contemporaries, such as Cinthio and Lope de Vega, about serving audience interests in opposition to the ”negative sentimentality” that Paul favours.

    The current revival of productions of “Titus Andronicus” seems equally ominous, particularly when we hear of a well-known company happily keeping score of the numbers of faintings achieved among audience members. Apparently medical facilities are increasingly seen as a requirement for such productions. I do believe such extra costs should be avoided. With best wishes, Hugh Macrae Richmond

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