I have realised that I avoid Shakespeare. I read his plays, and watch them when I get the chance, and I’m not disputing his significance, but I feel somehow that I haven’t anything to say about his work, so I don’t tend to write about or teach him (apart from a few sonnets). This year marks 450 years since his birth, though, and I am reading a lot about him in the press and on the internet (and am looking forward to reading 30 Great Myths about Shakespeare after reading about it in the TLS). All this is making me ponder why I avoid him when I don’t subscribe to the old chestnut that ‘everything has been said’ about his work; after all, every reader and every theatregoer experiences a different Shakespeare, and every age reinvents him for their own ends, social, political and artistic. Anyway, it’s impossible to avoid Shakespeare; even if you’ve never read a word of his, our language is so saturated with expressions of his devising that he is inescapable (see here for a list!) It is Shakespeare’s language – resonant, evocative, witty, dramatic – for which he is so widely loved; his plots tend to come from other sources (I spent hours with Geoffrey of Monmouth reading up on the original ‘King Leir’ while I was doing my A-levels), and the outline of the narrative would thus often have been familiar to theatre-goers of the time. Shakespeare’s genius, then, is to use language to construct characters and situations which have us by the throat even when we know what happens. I’ve seen numerous productions of King Lear, yet every time I am on the edge of my seat, illogically hoping that Cordelia will not die.
And there is still fresh research. The TLS has recently reviewed William Shakespeare and Others: Collaborative Plays, ed. Bate and Rasmussen, which offers new ways of looking at plays that Shakespeare might have had something to do with, but which cannot be wholly attributed to him. We still don’t know everything about the man and his work, nor will we ever, but that is no reason to stop trying.
Another fruitful and fascinating aspect of Shakespeare studies is the reception studies approach. How did the Victorians read Shakespeare, for example? They saw some of his work as unsuitable for family reading, so an expurgated version was produced by Thomas Bowdler (hence the word ‘bowdlerised’). We know they responded to his plays and characters creatively, in poems and paintings, for example, such as Tennyson’s poem ‘Mariana‘ (based on Measure for Measure), and the Pre-Raphaelite paintings of the same subject, particularly by Millais (this is probably my favourite Pre-Raphaelite painting).
Tennyson takes the abandoned Mariana of Shakespeare’s play and rewrites her as a melancholy Englishwoman longing for her lover to return. I sometimes teach this poem as a way of looking at the trapped position of many women of the period, condemned to a monotonous, wistful existence in which life seems to happen away from them. The poem also aestheticises women’s sadness, making it a beautiful spectacle, and this is also what Millais’s painting does – but it does more than that: Millais’s Mariana is not just a spectacle of beautiful sadness, she is also a real woman, who stretches languorously as she stands up from her sewing. This was considered shocking by many of Millais’s contemporaries, who saw a sexual resonance in Mariana’s pose.
These are small examples of how Shakespeare has been reinvented. And we continue to do this. I’ve seen some wonderful modern productions of Shakespeare’s plays; I don’t really like ones that attempt to change Shakespeare’s language, because I can’t really see the point of this, but the wonderful adaptability and ‘relevance’ (horrible word) of his work is all the more apparent in productions such as Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet
(which I saw at 19 and loved), and the 1993 Royal Court Theatre’s production of King Lear set before and during the Great War (contrasting the power of the old with the gullibility or manipulation of the young). Read Locating Shakespeare in the Twenty First Century for more on this! I’m not an expert on how we reinvent Shakespeare, or even why, but am intrigued by how any one writer can have had such a far reaching influence. That is certainly something we should be celebrating, this and every year, and means that no-one with an interest in literature, popular culture, art, history or even social studies can afford to ignore him.