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Never mind yet more Comedies of Errors – what about the rest?

2012 April 22
by Paul Vallely

What will you be doing to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday tomorrow? Me neither. Despite the best efforts of the BBC over the past week, which has gone into overdrive on tv and radio with Bardic offerings – with big gun historians like Simon Schama, James Shapiro and Neil McGregor on how the great globalisation of the Elizabethan era first put a girdle about the earth – our greatest writer is now more honoured in the breach than the observance.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the great man’s birthday is memorialised on St George’s Day. (It’s not known when he was really born, though he was baptised on 25th April 1564.) The modern English sensibility is embarrassed by notions of the nationhood of this blessed plot, so the day of our patron saint, like our national scribe, is best passed over quietly. The Celts of Scotland, Wales and Ireland can exalt in their special days, and ethnic minorities may celebrate their cultures.  But all things English are best minimised for fear of triumphalism or cultural superiority – patriotism being the last refuge of the English scoundrel, though that’s Sam Johnson not the man from Stratford.

There will, of course, be the usual touristical pride, pomp and circumstance in Stratford on Avon, to observe the 448th birthday of the local glover’s son made good. But in the main the event will be feted in far-off places. A World Shakespeare Festival this week will perform all 37 of his plays across the globe in nearly 50 languages, including the midsummer madness of a Bollywood version of Twelfth Night. If Shakespeare is our contemporary, as the Polish critic Jan Kott once claimed – with his universal human preoccupations of love, death, power, jealousy, ambition and greed – that appears to be acknowledged elsewhere more than in his native land.

All around us there is the sound of our literary heritage slipping away in the long, melancholy susurration of a withdrawing ebb-tide. When a survey last month showed that only half of today’s children knew the Lord’s Prayer cultural commentators lamented that this meant they wouldn’t be able to understand Shakespeare, Tennyson or TS Eliot. Fat chance that many of today’s kids can be dragged away from their PS3s to become rapt in secret studies of poetry as difficult as that anyway.

I sat up in my armchair some weeks back when I heard a cop in a mid-evening tv police drama announce: “Why this is hell nor am I out of it”. This is Mesphistopholes great line from Dr Faustus. But there it was, deracinated, torn from its context like the “Best of” operatic arias which the great musicologist Sir Donald Tovey once scathingly described as “bleeding chunks”.

Marlowe is splendidly memorable in chunks, like his Tamburlaine’s Is it not passing brave to be a king, And ride in triumph through Persepolis? or that most famous of Elizabethan lyrics Come live with me, and be my love, And we will all the pleasures prove. But audiences have for years been cheated of the long spine-chilling rhapsodic passages of the last act of Faustus in which the bold doctor tortures himself with the prospect of a repentance he cannot embrace. I have not seen that in the theatre for 30 years.

The same could be said of a raft of Shakespeare’s less fashionable plays which languish while companies around the country all vie with one another for yet another gimmicky production of The Comedy of Errors. There are honourable exceptions to that: Edward Hall’s magnificently physical all-male company Propeller; Declan Donnellan’s inventive and intimate Cheek by Jowl; and the direct humanity of Barrie Rutter’s Northern Broadsides, which is currently touring an immensely funny yet profoundly moving Love’s Labour’s Lost. But why no recent Coriolanus, Troilus and Cressida, Taming of the Shrew, Richard II, or Antony and Cleopatra?

And what about the other now rapidly being forgotten 16th and 17th-century literary geniuses? In the theatre we do not get to see much of that other great Jacobean revenge dramatist, John Webster, whom TS Eliot famously said “saw the skull beneath the skin” and travelled the maze of conscience in the human breast in The White Devil in which he observed that we think caged birds sing, when indeed they cry. My spellchecker tried to change the Duchess of Malfi into the Duchess of Mali. An African production; now there’s a thought.

On the page the metaphysical poets Donne, Herbert, Crashaw, Vaughan, Traherne and the rest are out of fashion with their off combination of intellectual conceit, vibrant metaphor, sexually-charged passion and profound religious fervour. Yet an English Puritan like Andrew Marvell was able both to chide the irony of quaint virginity (a pun as rude as Hamlet’s “country matters”) and perceive the human soul in a teardrop of dew ever long before a Romantic like William Blake saw eternity in a grain of sand.  What of Bunyan, Milton and the glorious Dryden?

What we have left of them, to turn to a Titanic metaphor, are little icebergs that have broken off from the cultural mass and are floating by like fragments of forgotten meaning through an ocean of post-modern meaninglessness. Untune that string, and, hark, what discord follows.

What country, friends, is this? It is that of those who have been at a great feast of languages and stolen the scraps. It is a world which is living off the cultural inheritance of the past but which, like those who want to tap into the newfound aquifers of Africa to make the deserts bloom, shows little concern at how it is to be replenished.

Maybe I am too gloomy. My 12-year-old son came home from school the other day with Chaucer in the original. I thought he might struggle. But it was, to him, another language, like French or Ancient Greek. Children are built for learning. Mandarin is a difficult language for Western adults to learn but millions of Chinese toddlers seem to manage. Perhaps our failing is that we fear exposing our children to things which are properly challenging.

We have become too used to Philip Larkin’s infamous pronouncement on what our parents do to us. We would be better off with Adrian Mitchell’s glorious parody: They tuck you up, your Mum and Dad… The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo.

4 Responses
  1. Stephen Bates permalink
    April 22, 2012

    Good for you Paul, but it’s not strictly true to say that there have been no recent productions of some of the more obscure plays you mention.
    There’s just been a film version of Coriolanus (maybe the first ever?), Richard II’s had a sell-out and highly-praised production at the Donmar Warehouse in London starring Eddie Redmayne (I know – my wife and I tried to get tickets before it opened and it was already sold out for the entire run…), there’s a current production of the Taming of the Shrew somewhere and Alice and I saw Antony and Cleopatra only a couple of years ago in the West End.
    The Duchess of Malfi’s on at the Old Vic too at the moment and there’s a complete cycle of the Shakespeare plays at the Globe this summer too…admittedly most of these have been in London, so maybe a case to get the Northern Broadsides moving?

  2. April 22, 2012

    Obviously, London is a different case – there were two productions of Doctor Faustus here last year, one starring Doctor Who’s Arthur Darvill as a very effective Mephistopheles – and I’ve just got my tickets for The Taming of the Shrew at the Globe in June and Timon of Athens at the National in September. But I’ve been wanting for years to see Tamburlaine the Great and there seems fat chance of that.

    But I agree that it is mystifying the way that generally our greatest writers seem to be honoured less in this country than they are overseas. (And it took an American to build the Globe!)

  3. April 24, 2012

    Yes, I should probably have said that I was talking about the plays that tour the nation and not just London. Even so there is a dearth of really adventurous stuff everywhere.

  4. Stephen Bates permalink
    April 25, 2012

    Personally Paul I could do without more jeans and t-shirts productions of the sort that the RSC seems to mean by adventurous. Having said that, the most enjoyable rendering of a Shakespeare play I’ve ever seen (and we went four times…) was the RSC’s Merry Wives of Windsor, of all plays, updated to 1959 about 20 years ago. And they did a fabulous Midsummer Night’s Dream set on a rubbish tip (I know, I know…) a few years ago too. And McKellan’s Richard III, updated to the Fascist era, which is on film is also pretty good, though that’s largely because of McKellan’s performance…..

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