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).