Show Hide image

Tom Stoppard on art, Charlie Hebdo - and why it's a bad time to be a voter

"Time is short, life is short. There's a lot to know."

Stoppard outside the National Theatre. Photo: Linda Brownlee for the New Statesman.

It’s the final dress rehearsal for Tom Stoppard’s new play, The Hard Problem. We’ve come in from the cold outside the Dorfman Theatre on London’s South Bank, where Stoppard has been having one last cigarette. He settles me into a seat in the circle before heading down into the stalls, where he’ll make his final notes with the director Nicholas Hytner. I’ve read the play, because Stoppard sent it to me a few days before we meet, and I am eager to see how the words on the page will become words on the stage. But just before he leaves me and the house lights dim, Stoppard pauses for a moment in the aisle and asks, with a worried frown: “Are you sure the play made sense to you?”

That might sound like false modesty but here’s the thing about Stoppard: it’s not. Yes, he is “a true virtuoso”, as Alfred Molina called him when handing him a Writers Guild of America Screen Laurel Award a couple of years ago, an accolade that recognised a lifetime’s achievement in outstanding writing for film and television. His screenplay credits include Brazil, The Russia House and Shakespeare in Love, which got him an Oscar. And he has won four Tony Awards for Best Play: the first in 1968 for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead; then for Travesties in 1976; for The Real Thing in 1984; and for the three-play series The Coast of Utopia in 2007. Shall we go on? There are the three Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards, several Evening Standard Awards and a Laurence Olivier Award (for the 1993 play Arcadia). He was knighted in 1997 and, in 2000, he was given the Order of Merit by the Queen. That’s the sort of roster that might make a fellow rather full of himself but Stoppard’s reticence is genuine, his charm honest and sincere. His friend and fellow playwright David Hare puts it simply: “Any discussion of Tom starts with what an extraordinary man he is. I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone like him in my life.”

The Hard Problem is Stoppard’s first stage play since Rock’n’Roll in 2006. That play – in addressing the Prague Spring of 1968 and Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution in 1989 – offered, perhaps, a kind of alternate life for its author, for Stoppard was born Tomáš Straussler in Czechoslovakia in 1937. His father was a doctor working for the Bata shoe company. During the war, the family fled to Singapore but that proved only briefly to be a safe haven. His father was killed during the Japanese invasion; Tomáš and his mother and brother escaped first to Australia and then to India. In 1946, his mother married a British army major, Kenneth Stoppard, and soon afterwards the family settled in England, where Tomáš Straussler became Tom Stoppard.

Writer Tom Stoppard poses with The Laurel Award for Screen Writing Achievement. Photo: Jason Kempin/Getty Images for WGA

There, from the start, is a conundrum of identity: one that, in its way, The Hard Problem addresses. The problem of the title is the neurological question of consciousness: how does electricity become emotion? Hilary, the neuroscientist who is the play’s central character, doesn’t think pure science provides an answer. She considers physical pain and how it differs from emotional pain: “If you wired me up you could track the signal, zip-zip. If you put my brain in a scanner you could locate the activity. Ping! Pain! Now do sorrow. How do I feel sorrow?”

Hilary’s sorrow is that, when she was 15, she had a baby, a little girl who was given up for adoption. It is a loss that haunts her and that no scientific knowledge can assuage. This is, as Stoppard says, “the gap between the train and the platform” and it is something that has troubled him for a while. “The idea – especially the idea about . . . a mother’s love for her baby – came out of a correspondence I had with Richard Dawkins once about a television programme he did. I kind of said, ‘I really enjoyed the programme, I was really interested, but I murmur against the evolutionary account of, say, altruism.’” That was nearly a decade ago, he tells me, but his file of clippings (“This is before the internet”) on the subject dates back to the 1980s.

He had read up on the subject but coincidence, which has a strong role in The Hard Problem, had its part to play, too. Every other year, Stoppard throws a summer party in the Chelsea Physic Garden; a few years ago, Robert May was in attendance. May is a former president of the Royal Society who spoke about his work in biology to the cast of Arcadia, back in the day. “Bob said, ‘There’s a guy here you need to talk to.’ It turned out to be Armand Marie Leroi, who is professor of developmental biology at Imperial. He’d been brought by somebody else – not by Bob May – and he was very friendly. I used him to tell me what I’d got wrong. I’d send him a first draft; there were things I adjusted and corrected thanks to him.”

Most of Stoppard’s research is done using books. “I really just like to be at a desk,” he admits. In The Hard Problem, Hilary ends up working for a private research institute called the Krohl – which is closely based on the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, started up a dozen years ago by the Microsoft co-founder Paul G Allen. I wonder if Stoppard has ever been there. “Funnily enough, I wrote to invite him [Allen] to see the play and he wrote back and asked me to come visit. I’ve got a very bad habit of doing my research after I’ve finished! I’d love to visit,” he says, “but it’s a long way to Seattle.”

This little exchange is as good a way as any of demonstrating that, for Stoppard, drama is an intellectual pursuit. In the past, he has said that he writes plays “because writing dialogue is the only respectable way of contradicting myself”. To me he says: “I don’t really get off on fascinating characters or an amazing incident. I get off on abstract questions, a puzzle. Or just somebody’s mind, really, like Housman’s, or something like that.” The Invention of Love was his 1997 play centred around the poet A E Housman; one could argue that now, nearly two decades later, he is taking on the mind as a whole. A great, wired brain hangs over the set of The Hard Problem, a network of flashing lights and electric connections that makes material the ongoing mystery of what is really going on inside our skulls. As David Hare says, “What Tom loves is good writing. He doesn’t mind what direction good writing takes him in. It’s the quality of the journey which he adores, rather than the destination.”

A coffee with the actor Samuel West gives a sense of how this intellectual electricity flows through everyone who works with Stoppard. West played Valentine in the first production of Arcadia, directed by Trevor Nunn at the National Theatre in 1993. West had just missed getting into a production of The Importance of Being Earnest when Arcadia came along: “The part went to Richard E Grant and I was miffed.” Then he read for Septimus at the National – the role that eventually went to Rufus Sewell and made his name. This reading, West tells me with a sheepish grin, went “quite badly”; but he returned to read for Valentine. By coincidence – another one – he’d just memorised Byron’s poem “Darkness” for a competition; it’s a poem that appears to anticipate the eventual death of the universe, as modern physics understands it. The play hinges on whether such knowledge could have been had a couple of centuries in the past.

“I said to Trevor and to Tom, you know there’s a Byron poem about this, don’t you? ‘I had a dream, which was not all a dream./The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars/Did wander darkling in the eternal space,/Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth/Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air . . .’ I recited it and, at the end, they were – briefly – dumb. Tom was quite excited. And Trevor said, ‘That’s one for the programme!’ I just felt happy that I might have got something into the programme of Arcadia.”

But he got the job, no small thanks, he’s sure, to both Byron and Stoppard – because the lines didn’t just go into the programme, they went into the play. “And it turned out to be arguably the greatest postwar play in English,” West says, his face alight at the memory, “and almost certainly the greatest new play I’ll ever be in.” Most plays, he says, “require you to become a bit of an obsessive. But the wonderful thing about Arcadia is that becoming obsessed with it didn’t seem to narrow the world down at all: it seemed to explode it.”

The dress rehearsal of The Hard Problem runs straight through from start to finish, a good sign, Stoppard says, as we stand outside again for a few minutes afterwards so he can have just one more cigarette before we head inside the warren of the theatre’s backstage area for a chat in an office upstairs. Tall and elegant in a long coat, his mane of hair now grey, Stoppard has a presence that is powerful without ever being intimidating. Just as we are removing our jackets and getting comfortable, the playwright manages, somehow, to turn on the torch of his iPhone. He is clearly startled by this, not least because he didn’t know that the device was so equipped. “I had to borrow a torch for the dress rehearsal!” he says. “I had no idea I had one in my pocket. I’m not actually fit for purpose, writing about science.”

He had put off writing this play for a long time. “I did Anna Karenina instead of this, for example” – Joe Wright’s 2012 film starring Keira Knightley and Jude Law. He also cites his TV adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s novels, Parade’s End, also released in 2012, as a years-long distraction from getting to work on his latest play.

The trailer for Anna Karenina (2012)

But it wasn’t simply other commissions that got in the way: there was his sense of himself as a playwright, too. “I really didn’t want to write the kind of play that I write,” he says. “I’d like to write a play which didn’t sound like one of mine.” He looks at me slightly hopelessly. “And this one does, doesn’t it?” I say it does: there’s no escaping that. “Yes,” he says. “Well, because it is one. I thought I might find a more abstract way of talking about these things, or a more poetical way, rather than do this, where it’s essentially naturalistic, or realistic, except that the dialogue tends to be worked on, which it isn’t in life. I had a feeling that I was on the cusp of being out of date in some interesting or uninteresting way, just in terms of the conventions I use. But finally . . .” He trails off for a moment. “You are what you write. And you write what you are. And it just came out like this. I still would like to do the thing I’m talking about. But I didn’t, on this occasion.”

It’s moving to hear him say this. After all, many people greatly admire work that sounds like Stoppard; the “worked-on” dialogue has plenty of fans. But it is the mark of the artist always to be reaching, if possible, for the new, even if it can’t be achieved.

He is aware that time is shorter than it once was. “I’m 77,” he says. “Fifty years ago, I would have thought, frankly, if you get to be 80, you’ve won. Everything else is gravy. Now I don’t feel this at all and it’s quite worrying, if one cared to worry about it. My last stage play was 2006 so, clearly, if I want to write another one, I’d better not interrupt myself to that degree and try to write one next year. I don’t think I’d like to leave things as they are.” As if describing an imagined obituary, he considers what ending his play-writing career with his latest work might look like: “The Hard Problem opens – that’s where I got to. I don’t want to think that way. I want to think there’s something to follow it and plays are the only thing I write which are truly my own.”

Indeed, his work for the screen doesn’t loom large in our conversation. “I think of myself as a theatre writer who sometimes does other stuff,” he says. Although he invested “an enormous part” of himself in Parade’s End, “Somebody else invented the characters and the general outline of the story.” What he loves in film “are the bits which don’t have any words in them. Just the way of telling a story with objects and a camera. I admire that, I really do. I’d love to be able to be good at it but it doesn’t draw my devotion in the way that particular words in a particular order do.”

David Hare tells me that he and Stoppard and their wives (last year, Stoppard married Sabrina Guinness, the brewery family heiress who was once romantically linked to Prince Charles; it was his third wedding and her first) often make a foursome at the theatre, which, I find myself thinking, must be a terrifying prospect for any member of the company who glimpses them coming in. “All of us cheer up when something catches our fancy,” Hare says, though that’s not always the case. He mentions (but will not name) an “extremely well-received play”, after which: “Tom turned to me and said, ‘This is the kind of thing that people who hate theatre hate most.’ He meant that it was tiresome and humourless. You could never use that word about Tom. I once asked him, ‘You don’t think that play has too many jokes, do you?’ He said he didn’t think a play could ever have too many jokes.”

But it doesn’t seem as if evenings at the theatre fill his life. I remark that “state of the nation” plays, for want of a better term, seem to be having a moment. I think of Rona Munro’s The James Plays, a trilogy that looked at Scottish independence through the glass of Scotland’s history; Mike Bart­lett’s brilliantly satirical King Charles III; and Jack Thorne’s austerity drama Hope. “You’ve mentioned three titles to which I hoped to go but never did. I can read plays, I tell myself,” he says. He agrees that they arise from a moment of political engagement. He is himself deeply engaged; yet he has resisted addressing current political issues in his work, not because he fears that it would become dated but because some questions are not adequately answerable.

“Where do you stop?” he asks. “The murders in Paris – where is the bottom of that story? Where do you get back to? I had a conversation today which offered a very good metaphor for this. It was about somebody studying architecture as a restorative enterprise. The question for these people is: ‘Restore back to where?’ Original may not be the best choice. There may be a superb 18th-century building on a 15th-century building, so which do you restore? Some of these subjects are bottomless and I reverberate with half-formed responses to this mad spectrum of the state of a the nation and the nations, plural.”

Stoppard is acutely aware of global affairs. He says he is “a great newspaper reader” and knows “what’s going on in the world”. He used to love the journalist entertainers, the comic columnists, but not any more – striking to hear from a man who said a play could never have too many jokes. “Time is short, life is short, there’s a lot to know. So I skip the entertainers in the newspaper now. I just haven’t got time.”

The playwright in 1967. Photo: Jane Brown/Guardian News & Media Ltd

He is not a writer, or a man, who can simply be placed on the left or right of politics. His world is too complex for that, as the unabashedly left-wing David Hare acknowledges. “He and I came from very different political points of view in the 1970s,” Hare tells me, “but he embraced my work and supported me very strongly in that generous way of his. He was a committed anti-communist and that was the most important cause of his life. But unlike most anti-communists, he was not pursuing a surrogate vendetta against the British left. He hated communism because of what it did to its victims. He knew about how people suffered in the Soviet bloc; the domestic argument about left and right didn’t much interest him.

“Tom has fantastic integrity. He is a genuine democrat – and one without an axe to grind, which is terribly unusual. In that way, he’s unique. I’m not talking about the theatre; I’m talking about his place in British life. It’s not that he’s above the struggle. There are many things to which he gives a great deal of time and attention – anything to do with freedom of speech, freedom for writers. But his is no Olympian detachment; it’s a largeness of soul.”

Some of that largeness of soul goes into his role as president of the London Library. That’s how he and I came to meet some years ago. It is clear that this Piccadilly institution, founded in 1841 by Thomas Carlyle, is a place dear to his heart. He presides with warmth over its annual Christmas party, persuading the likes of Vanessa Redgrave and Tom Hollander to read seasonal verses to the assembled guests. Yet there is more to his public life than that. Over the years, Stoppard has supported many human rights causes across the globe, ranging from Charter 77, the campaign and manifesto for human rights formed in communist-era Czechoslovakia (Václav Havel’s rise to the presidency is dramatised in Rock’n’Roll), to action over Darfur; and he has called for Vladimir Putin to restore “peace and justice” to Chechnya. He has been vocal in his support for the Belarus Free Theatre, a troupe that was in effect banned by Alexander Lukashenko’s dictatorial regime.

In 2013, he was awarded the PEN Pinter Prize, given in memory of the late Harold Pinter – a good friend of Stoppard’s – in recognition for a lifetime’s literary achievement and his work in the field of human rights. It is notable that, the same year, the PEN Pinter panel honoured the Belarusian journalist Iryna Khalip with the International Writer of Courage Award. Khalip had suffered intimidation and imprisonment in her country; it’s clear, in speaking to Stoppard, that he feels that his own courage pales before hers and that of many others. He knows that his visibility allows him to do good work; he is also very much aware that he is not at risk. His involvement is “at a distance. One gets points. If you are well known at something else, you get points for doing stuff which lots of other people do and much more and they don’t get any points at all. You get over-praised, over-credited. [Václav] Havel is something else. That is getting involved and paying the price and going to jail and everything else.”

But the fall of communism in Europe has only brought a certain kind of change and not all of it positive, as Khalip’s story attests. “It certainly wasn’t the end of history,” Stoppard says. “The fault lines now in . . . I was going to say ‘western society’ but it’s not just western society.” His voice trails off a little, as if he is debating whether to say something. It turns out that he was in Paris just after the murders in the offices of Charlie Hebdo. He took part in the march that thronged the streets of the city on Sunday 11 January. “I was there for other reasons,” he says; the trip had been long planned. He participated in the march “in the spirit of observing some important thing. But, of course, you couldn’t ‘observe’ it: you were either in it or you weren’t. I was in the middle of a million people and it was actually” – he pushes up against me, so we are shoulder to shoulder – “that close. A million.” He pauses. “I found the whole thing very troubling. I didn’t associate myself absolutely with the magazine. Obviously, the murders were indefensible, that’s quite clear. But those events chimed with me, with parts of me I’ve been aware of for years and years and years.”

Addressing Charlie Hebdo’s aggressive editorial policy, he makes a connection to his firm belief that: “You always feel worse if you decide to make an aggressive comeback.” This applies between individual human beings, he says, just as it does between families and villages and nations. “If you won’t let it go, if you are determined to flex your muscles and make your point bigger and better and louder, you always end up feeling bad. Whereas if you conciliate and give, you always feel relieved. This is the human truth about us. So I couldn’t, I really couldn’t, as it were, position myself in the heart of Charlie Hebdo.”

The shorthand of the “Je suis Charlie” hashtag, in that sense, is the antithesis of the sort of sophisticated discussion this issue requires, he says. That slogan “was supposed to be a statement against extremism but actually it was a gratuitous swipe at the entire population of Muslim countries.”

He notes the speech that Egypt’s President al-Sisi made on New Year’s Day, in which he asked: “Is it possible that 1.6 billion people [Muslims] should want to kill the rest of the world’s inhabitants – that is seven billion – so that they themselves may live? Impossible!” As Stoppard says, this idea is “beyond Jonathan Swift, beyond Alfred Jarry. It’s beyond anything, the absurdity of it.”

He makes sure that he is heard to condemn the murders absolutely: “What I would like to say and think and be sure is true is that the murders were committed by deranged criminals and should be treated as such. But, of course, those criminals are also guerrilla soldiers in a war of the world.” There is, he is certain, only one solution to this situation: “What we actually have to do is demonstrate by our behaviour that our values are better than theirs. That’s the only thing we’ve got to work with. It will take a long time and you’ll take a lot of hits for it but finally you can’t coerce people. You have to be more attractive than the competition.”

Hare calls his friend “a conservative with a small c”. Stoppard’s words about the Charlie Hebdo affair make me ask if he would agree with that description. What does he think it means? “I think it has a literal meaning, to do with conserving things,” he says carefully. “It suggests a kind of prudence in moving forward; a certain caution. Maybe there are one or two things I’m more radical about but ‘conservative with a small c’ is perfectly fine.” Once upon a time, he caused a fuss in artistic circles by expressing support for Margaret Thatcher: he told the US journalist Mel Gussow that he thought of her “as a subversive influence”. The pre-Thatcher, Wilson-Callaghan years had been “nauseating”.

None of the main political parties in this country inspires him now. He calls the rise of Ukip “scary and depressing”. “My sense is that all manner of disreputable opinion is huddled under that umbrella for the moment, because more unites them than divides them. Whatever follows, what divides them will show up very clearly. I don’t care for that at all.” But when I say that no major party seems to be offering an effective rebuttal to the rise of Ukip, he agrees, while remaining diplomatic about each party’s leadership. “It’s a bad time to be a voter. Where does one actually place one’s devotion, dedication, enthusiasm? You end up trying to calculate the least worst. It’s very troubling that we pay lip service to democracy as an ideal but we are becoming less democratic the more we promote democracy for other people.”

Not all aspects of what some call democracy find favour with Stoppard. He is an untiring advocate of free speech but the WikiLeaks saga left him pretty cold. “I realise that in the circle of my friends and probably most people I know, one is supposed to be gung-ho on Assange and Snowden,” he says, but he seems cautious about the notion of “blowing the whistle on some sort of negotiation or whatever”.

It’s the “bulk giveaway with no discrimination” he takes against – sometimes politicians must operate out of the public eye, surely. “When it’s exposing what’s happening at Guantanamo, it is democratic. One doesn’t want one’s democracy to behave like a dictatorial or fascistic police. One doesn’t. But I feel a great sympathy with what are called the forces of law and order, frankly; I think they’ve got their hands full, to say the least.”

It is clear that he has carefully considered the role he plays in such a world. “I think that I deal in luxury goods nowadays,” he says, perhaps a little sadly. “I don’t actually make a habit of quoting myself but there is a woman in Arcadia, or maybe it’s another play, who says: ‘It’s needing to know that makes us matter.’” It says much about the focus of Stoppard’s work that he can’t quite place this line. It is indeed from Arcadia, or nearly: “It’s wanting to know that makes us matter,” Hannah Jarvis says towards the end of the play, “otherwise we’re going out the way we came in.” She is, unquestionably, speaking for her author.

“That impulse, which I think does make us matter and is very much to do with being human and being a progressive human – it feels like luxury goods now, compared to doing something about the fact that half the population of the Lebanon is now refugees. Shouldn’t I write about that?” he asks. “Shouldn’t I go to Beirut? Rather than wonder whether I should go down the Fulham Road to visit a guy doing experiments?”

It sounds pessimistic but, as always with Stoppard, there is another side to the coin. “I’ve always thought of theatre as being a recreation for the community, the tribe, the society,” he says. “And obviously it’s all to the good if that particular kind of recreation is educative in some way, or occupies your brain in serious ways. The artist is trapped in his own logic, which is that if the actual purpose is to be educative, then you could hardly do worse than to write a play, where you are giving people a chance to hear something once as it goes by. Plays are story forms from which one can draw huge lessons but they aren’t the lesson. I think that’s always been true, from antiquity.”

The lesson is to listen, one thinks after spending time in Stoppard’s company. Our cups of tea have gone cold now; it’s dark outside. Stoppard has to get back to the theatre but he helps me with my coat and walks me to my bus stop on Waterloo Bridge. Then he turns and disappears back towards the theatre, to work, to writing, to his life.

“The Hard Problem” is at the National’s Dorfman Theatre, London SE1, until 27 May See page 49 for the review

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 06 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, An empire that speaks English

MATT MURPHY FOR NEW STATESMAN
Show Hide image

Measure for pleasure: sex, money and Shakespeare

Like sex, money is something that a lot of people spend a lot of time thinking about (and wanting more of). Shakespeare was no exception.

A hundred years ago this month, preparations for the Battle of the Somme were no impediment to national remembrance of the tercentenary of William Shakespeare’s death. He had been buried on 25 April 1616, but it was generally agreed that he had died two days earlier, on what may well have been his 52nd birthday (we can be sure about the date of his baptism in 1564, but not that of his birth). So, on 23 April 1916, St George’s Day, celebrations were staged in Stratford-upon-Avon and London. Also in Prague and Madrid, New York and Copenhagen. And, with special fervour, in Berlin. Back in the 18th century Goethe and Schiller had claimed Shakespeare as Germany’s national poet. In their adopted town of Weimar, as Germany geared up for war in 1914, the president of the Deutsche Shakespeare-Gesellschaft (German Shakespeare Society) had aligned Shakespeare to the spiritual rearmament of the German people. “O God of battles!” he had declaimed from Henry V, “steel my soldiers’ hearts;/Possess them not with fear”.

The two most notable Shakespearean publications of that tercentenary year were both published by Oxford University Press. First there was a stout, two-volume set called Shakespeare’s England: an Account of the Life and Manners of His Age. It began with an
“Ode on the Tercentenary Commemoration of Shakespeare” by Robert Bridges, the poet laureate. “And in thy book Great-Britain’s rule readeth her right,” Bridges wrote. “Her chains are chains of Freedom, and her bright arms/Honour, Justice and Truth and Love to man.” Thanks to Shakespeare – the poem proposed – the Union Jack has been hailed around the world as “the ensign of Liberty”. Shakespeare was lauded as the vessel of a kind of benign gunboat diplomacy: “And the boom of her guns went round the earth in salvos of peace.”

The book proceeded with a paean to “The Age of Elizabeth” by the aptly named Sir Walter Raleigh, Merton professor of English literature at Oxford, and then with an array of essays on almost every aspect of the culture of Shakespeare’s age, from religion, the military, education, travel and agriculture to law and medicine, commerce and coinage, heraldry and costume, city and town life, homes and gardens, sports and pastimes, rogues and vagabonds, and ghosts and witches. A century later, Shakespeare’s England remains a valuable compendium of historical lore, though it does not have much to say about the subjects that most 21st-century academic Shakespeareans focus on – women and gender, race and ethnicity, questions of cultural ecology and social anthropology.

The other OUP volume of 1916 was ­entitled A Book of Homage to Shakespeare. It contained over 160 tributes to the Bard, in more than 20 languages, contributed by scholars and writers from every corner of the globe. As Andrew Dickson reveals in his wonderful Shakespearean travelogue, Worlds Elsewhere, published last autumn, there is even an essay (written anonymously) by Sol Plaatje, the founding general secretary of what became the African National Congress, arguing that William “Tsikinya-Chaka” (that’s “Shake-the-Sword”, translated into Setswana) would one day belong to all South Africans, not just white men.

In contrast to the impassioned celeb­rations and the hyperbole of the claims about Shakespeare in 1916, the marking of the 400th anniversary of his birth in 1964 was fairly low-key. There was a set of Royal Mail stamps, a spike in academic publications, a ramping up of the annual Stratford-upon-Avon birthday jamboree, and not much more.

The two most notable books on Shakespeare published that year were modest in scale compared to the hefty tomes of a half-century earlier – though not modest in ambition. One was a bestselling biography by the historian A L Rowse, in which he announced that he had “shed light upon problems hitherto intractable [and] produced results which might seem incredible” by solving, “for the first time and definitely”, the riddles of the sonnets, as well as effecting “an unhoped-for enrichment of the contemporary content and experience that went into a number of the plays” – claims that Rowse pushed ever further in subsequent books on Shakespeare, each more hubristic and less scholarly than the last. Alas, poor Rowse: his credibility on the subject of Shakespeare’s sonnets disintegrated when another scholar noted that his case for the poet Aemilia Bassano as “Shakespeare’s Dark Lady” was based primarily on a misreading of a manuscript. He had thought it said she was “very brown” in her youth, but the actual wording was “very brave”.

The second bestseller from 1964 has stood up rather better. Anthony Burgess’s Nothing Like the Sun is by some distance the best contribution (save perhaps for the wonderfully comic No Bed for Bacon by Caryl Brahms and S J Simon, published in 1941) to the never-ending genre of novels about Shakespeare. Burgess the wordsmith had a terrific feel for the verbal pyrotechnics of the young Shakespeare, but also for his rootedness in the Warwickshire countryside. Fragmentary biographical gems – such as the weirdness of Shakespeare’s brother Gilbert – are interwoven with phrases and psychological insights drawn from the plays. And there is lots of very good Elizabethan sex.

***

Sex – now there’s a subject dear to Shakespeare’s heart, but one on which 1916’s Shakespeare’s England was unsurprisingly silent. Those two hefty volumes end with a rich subject index, but “sex” is not to be found between “setting-dog” and “shadow, in muster-roll”, nor “pox” between “powdering tub” and “praemunire”. Actually, the “powdering tub of infamy” was the sweating cure for syphilis, to which Shakespeare alludes in his final two sonnets as well as in several plays, but the author of the chapter on medicine in Shakespeare’s England (Alban H G Doran, consulting surgeon to the Samaritan Free Hospital) couldn’t bring himself to use any phrase for the pox other than “contagious disease”.

Sex is an area where Shakespearean scholarship has advanced immensely in recent decades. In 1994, Gordon Williams of the University of Wales at Lampeter published an astonishingly well-researched, three-volume Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature, which enumerated the sexual double entendre of about 2,000 words and phrases in the plays and poems of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Williams also produced a spin-off in 1997 providing a comprehensive glossary of Shakespeare’s sexual language. It was never far from our hands when we were compiling the glosses for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2007 Complete Works, which one reviewer described as “the filthiest edition of Shakespeare ever produced”.

Never mind the gunboat diplomacy – a Shakespeare who is honest, funny, messy and, above all, unashamed about sex might just be a useful 400th-anniversary present to those parts of the world where ­homosexuality remains illegal (as it was in Shakespeare’s England, though that didn’t stop him celebrating homoerotic passion) or where people live in fear of the modern-day, Islamist equivalents of the Puritans in Elizabethan and Jacobean London who excoriated plays, the theatre, sexual puns, female pleasure and cross-dressed boys.

For this reason, I predict that one of the two books published in this 400th year that will spark great debate and make a difference is Jillian Keenan’s Sex With Shakespeare: Here’s Much to Do With Pain, But More With Love. Simultaneously a memoir, a work of literary criticism and a love song (to Shakespeare much more than to the other men who pass through its pages), it is an extreme example of the genre of “self-discovery through literature” that was pioneered in such books as Alice Kaplan’s French Lessons and Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran.

It is the kind of book about Shakespeare that would have been inconceivable, in the full sense, in 1964, let alone in 1916. We have feminism – from its first shoots in the essays of Virginia Woolf through the full flowering of écriture feminine in the late 20th century – to thank for the eruption of the personal voice and self-conscious reflection on sexual identity into Shakespearean criticism. I know of few straight men who would dare to write a book as brave as this one.

What’s it about? Shakespeare and spanking. My first reaction was quizzical, but Keenan swiftly won me over, with her brisk prose, her playful self-flagellation and, above all, her perceptive attention to the nuances of Shakespeare’s language.

Think about it: if our claim about Shakespeare is that he speaks for all of us, that he addresses every dimension of human ­experience, is it surprising that a reader preoccupied with the symbiosis of desire and pain should find things in the plays with which to identify? Keenan’s heroine is Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which she rightly describes as “a play about sexual awakening and sexual exploration . . . at its core, a play that grapples with questions about sexual freedom, self-determination and consent”. When Demetrius tells Hel­ena that he can in no circumstances love her, she replies:

And even for that do I love you the more:

I am your spaniel; and, Demetrius,

The more you beat me, I will fawn on you.

Use me but as your spaniel; spurn me, strike me . . .

This rather turns Demetrius on. When all the story of the night is told, he and Helena are a couple.

Speaking for myself, I don’t “get” the whole BDSM thing. I suppose I’ve always assumed that it comes from childhood trauma: the Victorian poet Swinburne was a masochist because he was constantly whipped at Eton, that sort of argument. But great art – and good criticism – can teach you that choices unimaginable to you may be embraced by other people. Shakespeare’s greatness lies precisely in his capacity to enter into other minds, to show spectators and readers what it might be like to be a person with very different emotions, experiences and desires from our own.

Thus, Keenan offers a powerful reading of The Taming of the Shrew, proposing that the “taming” (which involves physical as well as verbal abuse) is a game in which the woman is complicit from the start. After all, the first sexual spark jumps between Kate and Petruchio in their opening encounter when they share a joke about cunnilingus. As Keenan puts it, “To Petruchio, Kate comes first (in every sense of the phrase).” The play itself takes place within a frame (the Christopher Sly plot) which is there to remind the audience that the whole thing is a fantasy, a piece of wish-fulfilment. Most of us are uncomfortable with the taming narrative because it seems to involve beating a witty and independent woman into physical submission and marital subservience. For Keenan, by contrast, Kate isn’t “broken” at the end of the play, she is broken at the beginning (by her father, by the patriarchy). She is liberated at the end: “If she and I be pleased,” says Petruchio, “what’s that to you?” Keenan (who is just occasionally a little too glib) adds, “I couldn’t put it better myself.”

The discourse of command and obedience, the sound and tingle of the slap, the hand beneath the foot: it’s all a game, and one that both parties enjoy to the full. In readings such as this one, the critic works with the dramatist to loosen the stays of the vanilla spectator and the middle-aged, heterosexual male scholar.

Shakespeare uses the word “beat” or “beaten” nearly 300 times. Of course the context is often that of military defeat and equally often of wanton cruelty. But sometimes it is comic knockabout and just occasionally there’s a dynamic whereby pain is pleasure, as when Cleopatra says: “The stroke of death is as a lover’s pinch,/Which hurts, and is desired.” Such lines are true to a dimension of human experience and it is cause for celebration when a writer as original, witty and self-deprecating as Keenan takes them seriously.

***

Like sex, money is something that a lot of people spend a lot of time thinking about (and wanting more of). Shakespeare, it seems, was no exception. My second pick from the plethora of quatercentenary publications could hardly be more different in tone or style from Sex With Shakespeare, but it will without doubt prove indispensable to future scholars and biographers. While Jillian Keenan has been spanking her way around Spain and Oman, Robert Bearman, a sometime archivist at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, has been closeted in Stratford-upon-Avon examining tithe-holdings, tax assessments of the value of moveable goods, notes on the storage of malt, property conveyances and monographs with such titles as Warwickshire Hearth Tax Returns: Michaelmas 1670. The results, in his book Shakespeare’s Money, are as rewarding, in their way, as Keenan’s frisky textual entanglements.

In many respects, Bearman’s scrupulous and comprehensive trawl through the archives confirms the familiar story. John Shakespeare, the playwright’s father, rose to a position of some prominence as a tradesman in Stratford-upon-Avon but then fell into financial difficulty. William went to London to try to improve the family fortunes, as well as to earn money to support the wife he had got prematurely pregnant and his three young children. After a slow start as a bit-part player, he found his niche as the rewrite man, patching, improving and eventually displacing old plays in the repertoire. In 1594, he and his fellow actors became sharers in a joint stock company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.

The combination of aristocratic patronage and business acumen – a share in the profits as opposed to the piecework payments on which other dramatists relied – allowed Shakespeare to purchase the title of “gentleman” and to buy a large house back in his own town (at a knockdown price) by the late 1590s. In the early 1600s, when the theatres were struggling through closures prompted by the plague, Shakespeare spent more and more time in Stratford-upon-Avon. The pace of his writing slowed as his property portfolio grew. When he died in 1616, his status was such that he could be buried inside the parish church, and a monument was raised in his honour some time after.

Bearman is especially illuminating on the intricacies of the transaction that marked the high point of Shakespeare’s financial fortune: his purchase in the summer of 1605 of a half-share in the lease of a portion of the Stratford tithes. Bearman explains how, following the Reformation, the tenth part of agricultural produce traditionally due to the parish rector became a commodity that could be bought and sold (a modern analogy might be the futures market). Shakespeare paid the very considerable sum of £440 for his entitlement. Bearman never tries to translate early-modern values into present-day equivalents, which is an impediment for the lay reader, but I would say that this equates to about £100,000.

At this point, though, the author questions the usual narrative. He notes that after 1605 Shakespeare made no other significant capital investments of this kind. A prosperous man would have kept on growing his property and investment portfolio. Furthermore, the marriages of Shakespeare’s two daughters in later years were not to wealthy or well-connected men, as they would have been if he had achieved unquestionably prominent status in his community. And, by comparing the bequests in Shakespeare’s will to those of the other lesser gentry in Stratford at the time, Bearman shows that he was by no means a rich man when he died.

Though wealth is always relative, and the dying Shakespeare still had the big house and the best and second-best beds, Bearman’s careful weighing of the evidence does suggest a trajectory of decline, as opposed to continuing prosperity in the last decade of the playwright’s life. He also points out that the notion of Shakespeare’s voluntary “retirement” to Stratford is anachronistic. Puzzles remain: why did he sell his lucrative shares in the playhouses and the acting company? What exactly were his intentions in purchasing a property in London in 1613, never having done so while he was living and working there? Above all, why did the pace of his writing slow, and why was it that, from 1612 to 1614, his only works were partial contributions to plays in which the younger dramatist John Fletcher increasingly took the upper hand?

One possible answer might connect money back to sex. From 1603 onwards, a deep vein of sexual disgust runs through several of Shakespeare’s plays – notably Measure for Measure, Troilus and Cressida and parts of King Lear and Pericles. Again and again, there are images of sexually transmitted disease. Furthermore, there are fragments of biographical evidence from this period suggesting a whiff of scandal around Shakespeare’s name. He stopped acting with his company early in the reign of King James. And then there is the hair loss. And those references to the sweating or powdering tub in the sonnets. People with marks of the pox were kept out of the royal presence. Could it be that when King Lear – with its startling images of female genitalia as a sulphurous pit – was performed before the king at Whitehall on Boxing Night 1606, a syphilitic Shakespeare was in exile out in the country, on a path of bodily decline to that premature death on his 52nd birthday, 400 years ago?

Jonathan Bate’s “The Genius of Shakespeare” is newly republished as a Picador Classic

Sex With Shakespeare: Here’s Much to Do With Pain, But More With Love by Jillian Keenan is published by William Morrow (352pp, $25.99). Shakespeare’s Money: How Much Did He Make and What Did This Mean? by Robert Bearman is published by Oxford University Press (196pp, £30)

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism