Delacroix, Hamlet and Horatio before the Gravediggers, 1843
Monday, 14 October 2019 13:28

Shakespeare’s Gravediggers – the first appearance of working people on the world stage

Published in Theatre

Jenny Farrell discusses the prophetic politics of the Gravedigger scene in Shakespeare's Hamlet, in which class-based justice and fundamental human equality are discussed by those whose task it will be to 'set right the time' by revolutionary upheaval. The scene is the first appearance of working people on the world stage.

There is hardly a country or a language in the world that is not familiar at least with Shakespeare’s name. His poetry has had an impact on the English language like no other. How can this enduring and all-encompassing popularity be explained? Has Shakespeare anything to say about the times we live in?

Hamlet is one of the most famous, if not the most famous, of Shakespeare’s plays. Yet one scene in it is hardly ever fully played out, and when it is, it is considered a piece of comic relief: the gravedigger scene at the beginning of the tragedy’s final act. A closer look at this scene reveals much of what Shakespeare is about and what he has to offer a 21st-century audience.

Act 5 opens with the first appearance of working people as independently acting persons on the world stage. They are two gravediggers discussing corruption in society, their own worth, and the equality of all humankind. The significance of this can hardly be overestimated.

The scene begins with the gravediggers, entirely on their own and completely self-sufficient, chatting and commenting on social injustice. Suicide victims were not normally buried in a churchyard in those days. The gravediggers comment how this rule does not apply to the nobility and how lawyers ensure this: “Crowner’s quest [coroner’s inquest] law.” They laugh at their own logic that therefore the wealthy have more reason to kill themselves than their ordinary fellow-Christians: “Great folk should have countenance in this world to drown or hang themselves more than their even Christian” (their equals).

This train of thought quickly moves on to an astonishing expression of self-respect: “There is no ancient gentleman but gardeners, ditchers, and grave-makers. They hold up Adam’s profession.” A connection is being made by the gravedigger to the Peasant Revolt of 1381, in which one of the leaders, John Ball, asked in a sermon:

When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?

These words, spoken at the time of the peasant rising in a sermon at Blackheath, near London, became legendary. The next sentence is: “From the beginning all men by nature were created equal.” John Ball deduced the equality of humankind from their common descent from Adam. He advocated social equality for all, and the gravedigger develops this idea. A gentleman’s coat of arms is swiftly reinterpreted to mean physical arms as the only arms worth having. They enable people to work and to build. This in turn leads to banter about a gravedigger building the most permanent of houses: “The houses that he makes last till doomsday.” 

The working people in this scene are given more space than the actors in a previous scene. They are more clearly drawn as individuals; they have a direct and unromanticised relationship with their job, which Hamlet and Horatio comment on. They are superbly confident. The humour they bring onto the stage acts as a comic relief to the mounting tension of the main plot, but it is far more than that: it is a manifestation of the absolute integrity of the gravediggers.

The gravediggers are even more radical in their understanding of death than Hamlet. Hamlet had displayed a profoundly materialist concept of death (i.e. physical without reference to a soul) at the time of Polonius’s death, yet he is taken aback at first by the unceremonious treatment of human bones by the singing gravedigger.

The gravedigger’s throwing about of skulls, irrespective of whose they might be, parallels Hamlet’s earlier statements about the levelling role of death, suggesting the natural equality of all humankind. This is an instance of doubling, or restating of an idea. In addition, Shakespeare is making the point that the working gravediggers have reached the same insights as the university-educated Hamlet through their work, their lives, and independent thinking.

Hamlet vents his disgust at double standards with Horatio (more doubling, as the gravediggers just discussed the same) before he addresses the gravedigger. But he is in for a surprise when he begins talking to the gravedigger. This man is his equal in the important matters of punning speech, honesty, and absoluteness.

The theme of a fundamental common humankind-ness, a kind of emotional communism, is underlined as Hamlet joins the gravedigger, along with Horatio. They all occupy the same space and have a scientific discussion about the process of decomposition, linking it with Hamlet’s comments about death at the time of Polonius’s demise.

At this time, in the graveyard, we see representatives of the working people together with the humanist prince and the humanist middle-class scholar. They understand each other fully and without hierarchy. At the level of language they are equals: no-one can outwit the gravediggers. Basic human equality is emphasised, and social criticism made, as they toss around the skulls.

When Hamlet is given the skull of Yorick, the court jester of his childhood, he vividly recalls him and alludes once more to the perfectibility of humankind as well as the material nature of death. Hamlet, Horatio and the gravediggers are natural allies. There are only a few occasions in the play when Hamlet feels relaxed and with his own kind of person - a person of integrity and honesty. This scene is one of those moments; another is when he interacts with the actors.

When asking ourselves why Hamlet finds it difficult to “set right” his time, we must consider what allies are available to him. They are all gathered in the churchyard. It becomes clear that his undertaking is all but impossible, and that a solution lies in the future. It would be another forty years or so before similar characters would be a strong enough force in English society to challenge and execute their king, or form movements whose objectives included a more just and equal society, in the English Revolution of 1640–1660.

In this context the function of the scene within the tragedy becomes extraordinarily clear. It expands our understanding of Hamlet’s alternatives, which are historical and linked to class forces as well as personal, even if their time has not yet come. It is clear that in this episode social inequality and human equality are being discussed by those whose task it will be to 'set right the time' - by revolutionary upheaval. In this centenary year of the Russian Revolution, which was the first successful take-over of state power by representatives of workers and peasants (including gravediggers), the episode is more relevant than ever.

Jenny Farrell’s book Fear Not Shakespeare’s Tragedies: A Comprehensive Introduction (2016), published by Nuascéalta, is available online.


Workers' Play Time: progressive political drama
Monday, 14 October 2019 13:28

Workers' Play Time: progressive political drama

Published in Theatre

Doug Nicholls introduces a great new collection of political plays.

Trade union struggles over the years have inspired some of our greatest playwrights. They have also inspired many works of drama that packed a punch in their time but have since been largely – and unjustly – forgotten. This is a rich seam that Workers’ Play Time has only just begun to mine. Our call for the submission of trade union-related plays that might be showcased in an anthology by Workable Books led to so many wonderful submissions that we intend this to be Volume One in a series.

To get enough bread for your members, you must have roses too. To amplify our voice from the workplace to society as a whole and across the world, trade unionists and their supportive cultural workers have sung songs, written novels, created music, painted pictures, drawn cartoons, made films, and written and performed plays together. Cultural work is central to and an essential part of our struggle, as all of the contributors to Culture Matters well know. If you ignore it, you blunt your campaign, deaden your organization, and dull your education programme.

Before the moving image, generations of activists expressed their beliefs and perceptions in song, prints, poetry and plays. Events would be organized where all art forms would coalesce. We have always known that art, like science, is the most precious expression of human ingenuity, collectivity, imagination and passion. Our art is priceless, outside the market, and therefore tends not to be well known.

At the GFTU we are committed to making working-class art in all genres more popular. Going right back to the Middle Ages in Britain there has been a tradition of workers expressing their views of society and the evils of the ruling class in plays. Our best playwrights have always hated the ruling class and social systems that have alienated, exploited and treated people cruelly. They have ridiculed pompous people, satirized the selfish and greedy and exposed the viciousness of powerful elites while celebrating the noble virtues and courage of good people.

DN Shakespeare

No-one did this better than Shakespeare, who might even be called our first great socialist playwright. He was socialist not because he used that word or believed that everything should be in public ownership, but because, in the terms of his own day, the two great social systems that he was living through – feudalism, which was in its death throes, and capitalism, which was just being born – both seemed inhuman to him. An alternative world must be possible, he thought.

So the plays collected here are genuinely in the Shakespearean tradition. They cover the whole of a historical epoch that witnessed the growth of industrial capitalism and the emergence from within it of a vision of a new socialist society. They are about the world created by the modern capitalism and imperialism that was only just beginning to take shape in Shakespeare’s day. And, most importantly of all, they are concerned with a force that did not exist in Shakespeare’s Britain – an organized working class.

They depict the working class in an industrialized country, and the organization of that class into the most fundamental of working-class organizations: trade unions. These were outlawed at the outset, as
Neil Duffield’s Bolton Rising and Neil Gore’s We Will Be Free! powerfully remind us.

The seven plays in this volume are about class-conscious workers who recognize that they have the power to change society – a power that did not exist until workers created it, and that resides in collective action and an indomitable sense of justice. Many of the plays lend themselves naturally to communal performance and discussion in the best traditions of popular education. One of the motivations for publishing the plays in book format is to encourage the burgeoning new generation of socialists to read and perform them again.

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Two of the plays are closely linked to great trade union leaders identified with the GFTU – Mary Quaile and Will Thorne. Seeing their work immortalized in these wonderful plays by Jane McNulty and James Kenworth helps us to feel that their efforts are still flourishing today.

In practically every country you can think of there are writers of plays and theatre groups working to develop through their art a form of inspiration and consciousness amongst workers that enhances their sense of dignity and power and makes the normal seem downright weird.

Yet many of these active playwrights, directors and theatre companies do not have a national profile. This is often because they have written for, with and as part of working-class communities. They have been the anonymous writing about the anonymous – yet this is often the great strength of their work.

In Workers' Play Time you will find dramas about key elements of our life as a working class, presented in chronological order of the historical periods depicted. Bolton Rising, by Neil Duffield, reminds us of the bitterness and sacrifice involved in forming trade unions in the era of the Combination Acts, which were designed to prevent the formation of workers’ organizations. The fortitude, clarity, commitment, determination, bravery and vision of our pioneers is always humbling.

It is always amazing too to reflect on how our predecessors organized not just before mobile phones and social media, but before telephones, cars and bicycles. The power of face-to-face contact should never be forgotten, and this is one reason why returning to our dramatic traditions is itself so inspiring. There is nothing more moving than a live performance, to stir the passions.

We have the greatest actors in the world, all organized in Equity, playing to music performed by Musicians’ Union members on sets designed and managed by BECTU members. We should enjoy the work of our unionized cultural workers more.

DN tolpud

We Will Be Free!, by Neil Gore, moves the time frame forward and delves into the stories of the Tolpuddle Martyrs and their most renowned leader, George Loveless. Depicted by history and convention as innocent victims of circumstances, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, as you can see in the pamphlets they wrote, were highly class conscious and dismissive of church and state and of the employers’ apparatus that was oppressing all working people.

They were part of that long-dissenting, radical tradition that had worked underground – often against all the odds, in secrecy and in fear of death – ever since the Peasant Revolts of 1381. The Tolpuddle Martyrs came just after the Captain Swing rioters, whose intense struggles against the landed rich paved the way for permanent organization of workers into unions.

Hannah, by Eileen Murphy, touches beautifully on one of the underestimated progressive consequences of the early trade union and socialist movement – the inclusion of women in the struggle for workplace democracy and the right to vote. The play portrays the life and struggles of the pioneering 19th-century labour-movement activist and suffragette Hannah Mitchell.

Dare To Be Free, by Jane McNulty, reminds us that the organization of women casual workers and the struggle against various forms of zero hours contracts has a long history. The need for the young to stand up for justice in the workplace has never been greater, and this play remains an inspiration as well as being ideally suited in length and style for education events to stimulate debate. As with many of our plays, the songs and music featured in this remind us of the rich seam of social commentary that has been expressed in our folk-song tradition. The GFTU has contributed to keeping this tradition alive by producing a double CD of working-class songs for democracy, resistance and peace.

DN 85562381 keir hardie gettytwo

A Splotch of Red, by James Kenworth, sets together two of the giants of the Labour Party and the trade union movement: Keir Hardie and Will Thorne. James Keir Hardie was the founder of the Labour Party and its first MP, being elected as Member for West Ham South in 1892. He was assisted in this by William Thorne (1857-1946), a Birmingham-born trade union leader who won the same seat in 1906, and later served as Labour MP for Plaistow between 1917 and 1945.

The two men represent a classic political opposition – Hardie the idealist and orator, Thorne the tactician, willing to compromise and deal with other politicians, including those of other parties, if it meant
attaining power. The dilemma they faced remains a central one in politics, particularly among those who wish to change things: is it possible to alter the system from within, or is it better to remain ideologically pure, even if this means, as the play’s Hardie puts it, ‘sitting on the sidelines’? Some say that this is itself a false dichotomy.

The play imagines the two men reborn in modern London, at a time of growing social inequality and fervent, fragmented opposition. As author James Kenworth says, it’s about ‘the issues that Hardie was writing about, and the fact that they haven’t gone away’. It’s also a reminder and celebration of the borough’s long tradition of dissent, and what the play calls ‘the awkward squad of West Ham’.

DN kmcc

The Chambermaids, by Kathleen McCreery, movingly recounts the true story of a group of Grosvenor House Hotel chambermaids who, in 1979, took on Trust House Forte when their Jarrow-born shop steward was unfairly suspended, and were sacked and evicted. Divided by race, language, religion and culture, the maids found common cause in struggling for their rights as workers, as women, as immigrants and as trade unionists. In addition to the lasting resonance of the themes depicted, the play’s songs, humour, strong female characters, and an original stylized story-telling technique, provide real challenges to students and community theatre groups as well to professional performers. Regrettably, the high level of class and trade union consciousness highlighted in this play was at a high-water mark in 1979 when Margaret Thatcher was first elected and the solidarity expressed seems at a long remove from the levels of awareness that might exist today in the hotel industry – or in any other industry, for that matter.

DN dagenham womens strike

Out! On the Costa del Trico, the final play in the anthology, was collectively created by the Women’s Theatre Group. The great victory of the Dagenham machinists has a legendary status in the trade union movement and has been transformed into plays and films. The heroic struggle at the American-owned Trico windscreen-wiper factory in London, by largely Asian women workers, deserves an equal place in our folk memory. Some details of the dispute can be found in a Morning Stararticle written by one of the strike committee members, Sally Groves, as well as in a longer study by George Stevenson.

Another feature of the construction of this play, evident to varying degrees in our tradition of theatre, is that it was collectively assembled by the cast members rather than by an individual writer and used the voices, the ‘actuality’ as Banner Theatre called it, of interviews with those involved in the struggle. Never forget the Trico strike.

So the plays you have here span an important period in our history. They cover the 134-year struggle from the first charter for the universal franchise to the legislation that gave everyone over the age of 18 the vote. They move from a period when trade unions were illegal to one when over half the workforce were active in them and able to win equal pay for women, thereby settling another long-standing demand. They chart the shift from when Britain was a mainly rural country through the age when it was the most advanced industrial economy on earth, to the beginning of the period when it was the first nation to de-industrialize, adopting the free movement of capital and labour.

When the media in Britain was less controlled than it is now by moguls with no allegiance to any country, there was an outpouring of politically progressive drama on TV and in our theatres. This has been significantly silenced. We are now more used to the US-inspired TV diet of reality TV, competition-based programmes and endless documentaries, films and series about serial killers and violent criminals. A disgusting culture designed to portray human beings as deviant, menacing, criminal and homicidal has been deliberately foisted on our airwaves. This is not our culture. Human beings are essentially the opposite of this. We are naturally social, cultural, peace-loving and generous.

Many regional and local theatres where children and performers used to create progressive works have been closed; performance spaces have been blocked off to anything that doesn’t fill the cash registers. But there are increasing signs of resistance and renewal is happening. Our theatre is and has always been where the people are – in village halls, community centres, social clubs, even as pop-ups on canal sides, in farmers’ fields or from the backs of vans. To some extent, trade unions themselves have let the side down by never having established their own venue for a theatre of the oppressed.

Many of our great theatre groups have been mobile, going up and down the country for generations playing to the canteen audience, the demo, the trades and labour hall. We owe a great debt of gratitude to these passionate touring theatre companies. Naturally many of our most valuable theatre groups have been forced to live a hand-to-mouth existence, with no security of funding and in the absence of the permanent trade union or state support for progressive theatre that is clearly needed.

So at the GFTU we are proud to keep this Shakespearean tradition alive and to publish this anthology, which offers to a wider audience some superb plays that make us think, laugh and cry, while also making us feel more confident that, though our own actions, we are sowing the seeds of a better, socialist world.

We thank the authors for sharing their immense talents and the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain for their assistance with this endeavour by publicizing our call for plays. We hope that these plays will be taken up anew and performed again and again, and we hope that this book will stimulate interest in the rich tradition of progressive, working-class drama.

Workers' Play Time is published by New Internationist at £9.99. You can buy it here.



Tom o'Bedlam, in King Lear
Monday, 14 October 2019 13:28

Is Shakespeare Universal?

Published in Theatre

Professor Gabriel Egan concludes his series on Shakespeare.

Shakespeare's fellow playwright Ben Jonson paid him a compliment that has come to haunt the study of plays from this period. "He was not of an age", wrote Jonson in a poem about Shakespeare, "but for all time". The poem was one of several commendatory verses printed at the front of the collected edition of Mr William Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies, now known as the First Folio, in 1623. Logically, there is something wrong with Jonson's claim: if Shakespeare's work were truly universal, speaking of the concerns of everyone for all time, then they must have spoken to his own time too. Yet Jonson specifically denies this in claiming that they were "not of an age". Perhaps Jonson meant that Shakespeare was not only suited to his own time.

The trouble with this interpretation is that such imprecise use of language, such a failure of logic, is just the kind of thing Jonson criticized Shakespeare for. In his collection of observations called Timber, or Discoveries, Jonson wrote that Shakespeare was apt to write carelessly illogical dialogue sometimes, "As when he said in the person of Caesar, one speaking to him 'Caesar thou dost me wrong', and he replied 'Caesar did never wrong, but with just cause' and such like, which were ridiculous". In his play The Staple of News, Jonson actually has a character repeat this illogicality as "Cry you mercy, you never did wrong, but with just cause". Jonson seems to be referring to the line in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar that comes down to us (in the First Folio) as "Know, Caesar doth not wrong, nor without cause / Will he be satisfied" (3.1), which is not illogical but rather awkwardly vague. It seems, from Jonson's harping on about it, that Shakespeare actually did write something quite illogical like "Know Caesar doth not wrong but with just cause" and that the line got altered in print after Jonson heard it in performance and pointed out what was wrong with it.

Scholars used to think that Shakespeare's works have come down to us in printed form rather by accident than authorial design. That is, until recently we thought that his only concern was to get his plays performed and that he cared nothing for their being published in books. This may seem a kind of disdain for future generations--for one's ability to speak to all time--but we should remember that theatre not print was the mass medium of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. 3,000 spectators could see and hear a play in an afternoon at an open-air amphitheatre like the Globe, but only half of them could buy the published book of the play because print-runs were limited by statute to 1,500 copies so that typesetters were kept in work. Books were reprinted of course, and recently the close analysis of book sales--judged by how often it was worth running off a second edition of 1,500 copies, and a third and so on--has shown that Shakespeare outsold any other dramatist in his lifetime and in the decades afterwards. If he wanted to speak to readers, those of his age and the ages that followed (and scholars now increasingly think that he did), then he succeeded handsomely.

Which returns us to the question of Shakespeare's alleged universality. Can the plays mean the same to us as they did to their original audiences and readers, now that we do not believe in the divine right of monarchs, or that sodomy is a sin, or that men are the superior sex? Given the variety of human cultures across time and across geography, how could the plays have a timeless universal essence? They cannot. But as complex works of art they may do something that Jonson's phrasing "not of an age but . . ." seems to hit upon: they may speak to us in ways that they could not in their own time. For example, The Merchant of Venice is not simply different now, for us seeing and reading it after the Jewish Holocaust, from how it seemed to its original audiences and readers, but in some ways it is also more resonant than ever it was before precisely because of its enhanced relevance after that calamity.

Likewise, when Lear asks Tom O'Bedlam "What is the cause of thunder?" (King Lear, 3.4) he is actually enquiring whether human actions cause bad whether. We know, as previous generations did not, that the correct answer is that they can. When boy actors pretend to be women who pretend to be men, today's audiences and readers are being asked some newly pertinent questions about identity, not only as defined by gender but also by social class. What difference does it make if Rosalind pretends to be a boy who pretends to be a girl who loves Orlando, rather than being that girl herself (As You Like It)? What difference does it make if Angelo stands in for the Duke, or if he is given Barnadine's head for Claudio's, or Raguzine's for Barnadine's (Measure for Measure)? The answer Shakespeare repeatedly gives us is that it does not matter much.

Identity in Shakespearian drama is fluid, but time on the other hand is irreversible. In the plays, things cannot be undone and indeed that word always means a calamitous state of affairs. The wounded Cassio is "undone by villains" (Othello 5.1) and the panicking Nurse tells Juliet "We are undone, lady, we are undone" after Romeo kills Tybalt (Romeo and Juliet, 3.2). The irreversibility of time in Shakespeare is not fatalism--his characters could always have made different choices--but a kind of existential morality: they are what they did and must take responsibility for. According to Shakespeare, it seems, just who we are is not given to us by external forces but is created by the actions in the present for which we are accountable. Where Jonson's resolutely logical mind balked at the unresolved contradiction of "wrong" and "just cause", Shakespeare seems to have preferred a dialectic that keeps the moral judgement open to interpretation. The resulting art may not retain its appeal for all time, but it has weathered the centuries rather better than Jonson's.
The Balcony Scene
Monday, 14 October 2019 13:28

Making Sense of Shakespeare

Published in Theatre

In Part Two of his series, Professor Gabriel Egan considers how the sense of words and phrases shifts across time and cultures, and how we can still have a meanigful conversation with Shakespeare.

Do we really understand Shakespeare the way his contemporaries did? There are plenty of opportunities for the modern reader to misunderstand what Shakespeare's characters are saying. One problem is what linguists call the 'false friend' word: we think we understand it but in fact the modern sense is quite different from the sense used in Shakespeare's time.

Marcellus and Horatio try to stop Hamlet from following the ghost of Hamlet's father, which seems to beckon him away for a private conference that they fear could be dangerous. Hamlet violently rebuffs their efforts to restrain him, crying "By heav'n, I'll make a ghost of him that lets me" (1.4). The word lets seems quite wrong here: surely he means he'll make a ghost of anyone who won't let him follow and talk to his father's spirit. The verb to let has reversed in meaning since Shakespeare's time: it used to mean preventing something rather than permitting it. British passports still use the word in Hamlet's sense, requiring foreigners to "allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance".

Perhaps the most widely misunderstood Shakespeare word is wherefore, as in "O Romeo, | Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?" (2.1). The dramatic context of a young woman looking out from her bedroom balcony encourages readers to suppose that she wonders where her lover is, but wherefore actually means why. This is odd. She is asking why he is called Romeo rather than something else that would not be an obstacle to their love: "Deny thy father and refuse thy name, | Or . . . I'll no longer be a Capulet". It would make more sense (and scan just as well) if the second and/or third Romeo were Montague.

Less well-known but more egregious is the misunderstanding of Shakespeare that is widely reproduced on posters depicting beautiful views of the countryside: "One touch of nature makes the whole world kin" (Troilus and Cressida 3.3). Far from being the source of goodness that unites diverse human cultures, by touch of nature Ulysses here means a weakness shared by all humankind: a taste for novel delights over things of true value.

Any competent specialist on Shakespeare's language can correct readers' mistakes regarding the meaning of his words - often it only takes a glance at the dramatic context. But should we conclude, then, that all of his meanings are available to us today so long as we take the trouble to recover them? Marxists are not the only intellectuals who harbour serious doubts that we can make the past so easily accessible to readers in the present. What if the underlying habits of thought and unspoken assumptions from Shakespeare's time are just so different to ours that we make similar 'false friend' errors regarding whole categories and concepts?

Take the barely suppressed homosexual desire between Antonio and Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice, which no-one noticed until W. H. Auden pointed it out in 1947. Attitudes towards this desire were different in Shakespeare's time from those of today, and indeed were quite different even in Auden's time when homosexuality was a crime in Britain. In what sense can we think of Shakespeare's universal appeal when notions of moral behaviour have so radically changed?

And it's not only sexual morality. Attitudes towards how societies should govern themselves have been revolutionized since Shakespeare's time by the rise of democracy. To understand what Richard II's contemporaries think he has done wrong, in his play, one needs more than a merely factual account of the idea of the divine right of kings. With rights, we often say today, come responsibilities, but this is not at all the view of those like Richard who believe in monarchial divine right. The Homily Against Disobedience preached from Elizabethan pulpits made it quite clear that even a bad king must not be resisted by his people, since only God could make and unmake rulers.

Yet it is also clear that in other matters Elizabethans saw rights and responsibilities as mutually reciprocal. In the New Oxford Shakespeare Complete Works to be published later this year, the editors have (with some regret, in my case) modernized a number of occurrences of the word owe to own. Shakespeare uses owe to mean possess, as in Roderigo's remark "What a full fortune does the thicklips owe | If he can carry't thus", meaning that Othello is a made man if he can marry and keep the desirable Desdemona (Othello 1.1). Linguistically there is no editorial defence for retaining owe in such cases: the notion is of ownership, not of debt, and hence the modern word is own. But the spelling owe for the notion of possession does pleasingly, to a Marxist, suggest that for Elizabethans the principle of possession necessarily entailed its opposite, a reciprocal obligation to give things away.

Editing Shakespeare involves making his works meaningful to modern readers, for example by modernizing his spelling (as in owe > own), but this does not imply that the plays' meanings were stored away by him 400 years ago and have only to be carefully unwrapped by us now to be fully appreciated. Marxist cultural criticism rightly rejects the idea that literary meaning is transhistorical, transcultural and simply embedded in writing from the past.

Rather, meaning is generated at the point of consumption by modern readers. In the opening words of his novel The Go-Between, L. P. Hartley observed that "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there" and – to shift geographical metaphors only slightly – watching, studying, writing about, criticizing, and editing Shakespeare can be seen as building a bridge to span the historical chasm that separates his time from ours. But this is only a metaphorical chasm, made merely of changes in how humans think, speak, and behave.

A more apt analogy would be conversation, in which we neither speak past one another as though using different languages nor entirely adopt one another's ideas as self-evident. Rather we speak to contest meanings, to reflect upon those differences of opinion we can grasp and, unless we have given up altogether the point of talking, to modify our views accordingly. That is the kind of conversation we can still have with Shakespeare.
Why bother with Shakespeare?
Monday, 14 October 2019 13:28

Why bother with Shakespeare?

Published in Theatre

This month marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death. Professor Gabriel Egan, in the first of a series of articles, discusses how his dramas imagine and enact different political choices.

William Shakespeare died 400 years ago, at the age of 52. In those 52 years he wrote poems and plays that are now being read by an estimated 1 billion people for recreation, work, and (most commonly) education, making him easily the world's most widely read writer.

There are competing theories to account for this. Twenty or thirty years ago it was usual to attribute Shakespeare's global reach to the British Empire and colonialism: they came with their Bibles in one hand and Shakespeare's Complete Works in the other. The long-running BBC radio show Desert Island Discs, started in 1942, still allows its hypothetical castaways these two books as the default consolation for their cultural loss, and invites them to choose one additional luxury to supplement these necessities.

The claim that British colonialism exported Shakespeare was not hard to substantiate by looking at the former colonies in the 1980s, when Ania Loomba – who identified herself as one of more than 700 teachers of English Literature at Delhi University – remarked that there were probably more students studying Shakespeare at her institution than in all the British universities put together.

One now hears a lot less about Shakespeare being a tool of colonialism than was common 30 years ago, and more about how colonized peoples have appropriated and rewritten the Shakespeare works that were forced on them. But the aura of coercion, of a literary culture foisted on the unwilling, still lingers about his works.
This is perhaps because his writings are forced upon the most vulnerable of all readers, the young, in the apparent belief that they are character building. In this, Shakespeare has somewhat replaced the learning of Latin, a language Shakespeare himself was made to study at school and perhaps recalled struggling with:

EVANS: That is a good William. What is he, William, that does lend articles?
WILLIAM: Articles are borrowed of the pronoun, and be thus declined. Singulariter nominativo: 'hic, haec, hoc'.
EVANS: Nominativo: 'hig, hag, hog'. Pray you mark: genitivo: 'huius'. Well, what is your accusative case?
WILLIAM: Accusativo: 'hinc'--
EVANS: I pray you have your remembrance, child. Accusativo: 'hing, hang, hog'.
(The Merry Wives of Windsor Act 4, Scene 1)

Shakespeare assigns the second of his seven 'ages of man' to the school-child, with "satchel | And shining morning face, creeping like snail | Unwillingly to school" (As You Like It, Act 2, Scene 7). This suggests a resistance to formal education that sits awkwardly with his own works' centrality to the teaching of literary appreciation across the world.

A new justification of teaching Shakespeare to the young has emerged in recent years from the political left. It is not that his works are inherently improving, goes the argument, but that everybody behaves as if Shakespeare's works are important, and so anyone lacking knowledge of them is excluded from the cultural conversations that promote progress in life. Whereas a previous generation of teachers, in reaction against the assumption that reading Shakespeare was morally improving, chose books they hoped would engage their charges by exploring concerns they might actually share, a new generation of teachers takes a more instrumentalist approach. We need Shakespeare on our curriculum, an inner-city English teacher is now likely to say, because our children will fall behind if we ignore him.

Anyone on the left will readily appreciate such concern for working-class children's education, but it seems unfortunate to leave pleasure out of the discussion. If a knowledge of Shakespeare is merely a necessity, like knowing long division or the location of Polynesia, then perhaps we lose what makes English Literature such a potentially thrilling and radicalizing part of everyone's school-days. But we should be wary too of what C. P. Snow 50 years ago identified as the isolationist tendency in the Arts, manifested as a disdain for other more practical subjects.

After all, for some school-children the Mathematics or Geography classes may be the most thrilling parts of the day, and these subjects too can radicalize the mind. Beginning to appreciate just how bad the numbers look on global warming, and which Pacific islands will be submerged first, is as likely to turn a young mind towards our shared humanity as does Shylock's speech "Hath not a Jew eyes? . . . If you prick us do we not bleed?" (The Merchant of Venice, Act 3, Scene 1).

Unlike a schoolroom class on Mathematics or Geography, however, children's English Literature classes do not really lay the foundation for what comes next ,but instead throw them in at the deep end. Shakespeare's poems and plays studied for a PhD are essentially the same words as those studied for a GCSE, and the sense of encountering an alien world does not diminish with increased familiarity – if anything it becomes more acute.

This, perhaps, is where Shakespeare's true value as a mind-expanding phenomenon lies, in making his readers broaden their horizons to imagine worlds quite unlike their own. It is not simply that the plays depict a sixteenth-century Europe or fifth-century BCE Rome that is unlike our world, but that his characters too imagine worlds quite unlike their own. Roman and English citizens wonder aloud about republicanism, the status of women, and how wealth should be distributed.
In Shakespeare, monarchy in particular is held up for robust scrutiny. The characters around the 'slacker' Prince Hal are right to be fearful when he inherits the English throne to become Henry V, even as he offers what he thinks (but they might not) is a reassuring comparison: "This is the English not the Turkish court; | Not Amurath an Amurath succeeds, | But Harry Harry" (Henry IV Part Two, Act 5, Scene 2).

In the sequel, Harry woos his future wife with the promise that their son "shall go to Constantinople and take the Turk by the beard" (Henry V, Act 5, Scene 2). Readers and playgoers are thus invited to consider whether Harry fils echoing the Christian braggadocio of Harry père – who swore "To chase these pagans in those holy fields" (Henry IV Part One, Act 1, Scene 1) – shows England's rulers' commendable consistency in foreign policy, or their terrifying adventurism. Through seeing characters think about and discuss imagined political strategies, we see how it is perfectly possible to imagine and enact another kind of foreign policy, another kind of world. The relevance for today could not be any clearer, could it?