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Your brain on pseudoscience: the rise of popular neurobollocks

The “neuroscience” shelves in bookshops are groaning. But are the works of authors such as Malcolm Gladwell and Jonah Lehrer just self-help books dressed up in a lab coat?

An intellectual pestilence is upon us. Shop shelves groan with books purporting to explain, through snazzy brain-imaging studies, not only how thoughts and emotions function, but how politics and religion work, and what the correct answers are to age-old philosophical controversies. The dazzling real achievements of brain research are routinely pressed into service for questions they were never designed to answer. This is the plague of neuroscientism – aka neurobabble, neurobollocks, or neurotrash – and it’s everywhere.

In my book-strewn lodgings, one literally trips over volumes promising that “the deepest mysteries of what makes us who we are are gradually being unravelled” by neuroscience and cognitive psychology. (Even practising scientists sometimes make such grandiose claims for a general audience, perhaps urged on by their editors: that quotation is from the psychologist Elaine Fox’s interesting book on “the new science of optimism”, Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain, published this summer.) In general, the “neural” explanation has become a gold standard of non-fiction exegesis, adding its own brand of computer-assisted lab-coat bling to a whole new industry of intellectual quackery that affects to elucidate even complex sociocultural phenomena. Chris Mooney’s The Republican Brain: the Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality disavows “reductionism” yet encourages readers to treat people with whom they disagree more as pathological specimens of brain biology than as rational interlocutors.

The New Atheist polemicist Sam Harris, in The Moral Landscape, interprets brain and other research as showing that there are objective moral truths, enthusiastically inferring – almost as though this were the point all along – that science proves “conservative Islam” is bad.

Happily, a new branch of the neuroscienceexplains everything genre may be created at any time by the simple expedient of adding the prefix “neuro” to whatever you are talking about. Thus, “neuroeconomics” is the latest in a long line of rhetorical attempts to sell the dismal science as a hard one; “molecular gastronomy” has now been trumped in the scientised gluttony stakes by “neurogastronomy”; students of Republican and Democratic brains are doing “neuropolitics”; literature academics practise “neurocriticism”. There is “neurotheology”, “neuromagic” (according to Sleights of Mind, an amusing book about how conjurors exploit perceptual bias) and even “neuromarketing”. Hoping it’s not too late to jump on the bandwagon, I have decided to announce that I, too, am skilled in the newly minted fields of neuroprocrastination and neuroflâneurship.

Illumination is promised on a personal as well as a political level by the junk enlightenment of the popular brain industry. How can I become more creative? How can I make better decisions? How can I be happier? Or thinner? Never fear: brain research has the answers. It is self-help armoured in hard science. Life advice is the hook for nearly all such books. (Some cram the hard sell right into the title – such as John B Arden’s Rewire Your Brain: Think Your Way to a Better Life.) Quite consistently, heir recommendations boil down to a kind of neo- Stoicism, drizzled with brain-juice. In a selfcongratulatory egalitarian age, you can no longer tell people to improve themselves morally. So self-improvement is couched in instrumental, scientifically approved terms.

The idea that a neurological explanation could exhaust the meaning of experience was already being mocked as “medical materialism” by the psychologist William James a century ago. And today’s ubiquitous rhetorical confidence about how the brain works papers over a still-enormous scientific uncertainty. Paul Fletcher, professor of health neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, says that he gets “exasperated” by much popular coverage of neuroimaging research, which assumes that “activity in a brain region is the answer to some profound question about psychological processes. This is very hard to justify given how little we currently know about what different regions of the brain actually do.” Too often, he tells me in an email correspondence, a popular writer will “opt for some sort of neuro-flapdoodle in which a highly simplistic and questionable point is accompanied by a suitably grand-sounding neural term and thus acquires a weightiness that it really doesn’t deserve. In my view, this is no different to some mountebank selling quacksalve by talking about the physics of water molecules’ memories, or a beautician talking about action liposomes.”

Shades of grey

The human brain, it is said, is the most complex object in the known universe. That a part of it “lights up” on an fMRI scan does not mean the rest is inactive; nor is it obvious what any such lighting-up indicates; nor is it straightforward to infer general lessons about life from experiments conducted under highly artificial conditions. Nor do we have the faintest clue about the biggest mystery of all – how does a lump of wet grey matter produce the conscious experience you are having right now, reading this paragraph? How come the brain gives rise to the mind? No one knows.

So, instead, here is a recipe for writing a hit popular brain book. You start each chapter with a pat anecdote about an individual’s professional or entrepreneurial success, or narrow escape from peril. You then mine the neuroscientific research for an apparently relevant specific result and narrate the experiment, perhaps interviewing the scientist involved and describing his hair. You then climax in a fit of premature extrapolation, inferring from the scientific result a calming bromide about what it is to function optimally as a modern human being. Voilà, a laboratory-sanctioned Big Idea in digestible narrative form. This is what the psychologist Christopher Chabris has named the “story-study-lesson” model, perhaps first perfected by one Malcolm Gladwell. A series of these threesomes may be packaged into a book, and then resold again and again as a stand-up act on the wonderfully lucrative corporate lecture circuit.

Such is the rigid formula of Imagine: How Creativity Works, published in March this year by the American writer Jonah Lehrer. The book is a shatteringly glib mishmash of magazine yarn, bizarrely incompetent literary criticism, inspiring business stories about mops and dolls and zany overinterpretation of research findings in neuroscience and psychology. Lehrer responded to my hostile review of the book by claiming that I thought the science he was writing about was “useless”, but such garbage needs to be denounced precisely in defence of the achievements of science. (In a sense, as Paul Fletcher points out, such books are “anti science, given that science is supposed to be  our protection against believing whatever we find most convenient, comforting or compelling”.) More recently, Lehrer admitted fabricating quotes by Bob Dylan in Imagine, which was hastily withdrawn from sale, and he resigned from his post at the New Yorker. To invent things supposedly said by the most obsessively studied popular artist of our age is a surprising gambit. Perhaps Lehrer misunderstood his own advice about creativity.

Mastering one’s own brain is also the key to survival in a dog-eat-dog corporate world, as promised by the cognitive scientist Art Markman’s Smart Thinking: How to Think Big, Innovate and Outperform Your Rivals. Meanwhile, the field (or cult) of “neurolinguistic programming” (NLP) sells techniques not only of self-overcoming but of domination over others. (According to a recent NLP handbook, you can “create virtually any and all states” in other people by using “embedded commands”.) The employee using such arcane neurowisdom will get promoted over the heads of his colleagues; the executive will discover expert-sanctioned ways to render his underlings more docile and productive, harnessing “creativity” for profit.

Waterstones now even has a display section labelled “Smart Thinking”, stocked with pop brain tracts. The true function of such books, of course, is to free readers from the responsibility of thinking for themselves. This is made eerily explicit in the psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, published last March, which claims to show that “moral knowledge” is best obtained through “intuition” (arising from unconscious brain processing) rather than by explicit reasoning. “Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason,” Haidt enthuses, in a perverse manifesto for autolobotomy. I made an Olympian effort to take his advice seriously, and found myself rejecting the reasoning of his entire book.

Modern neuro-self-help pictures the brain as a kind of recalcitrant Windows PC. You know there is obscure stuff going on under the hood, so you tinker delicately with what you can see to try to coax it into working the way you want. In an earlier age, thinkers pictured the brain as a marvellously subtle clockwork mechanism, that being the cutting-edge high technology of the day. Our own brain-as-computer metaphor has been around for decades: there is the “hardware”, made up of different physical parts (the brain), and the “software”, processing routines that use different neuronal “circuits”. Updating things a bit for the kids, the evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban, in Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite, explains that the brain is like an iPhone running a bunch of different apps.

Such metaphors are apt to a degree, as long as you remember to get them the right way round. (Gladwell, in Blink – whose motivational selfhelp slogan is that “we can control rapid cognition” – burblingly describes the fusiform gyrus as “an incredibly sophisticated piece of brain software”, though the fusiform gyrus is a physical area of the brain, and so analogous to “hardware” not “software”.) But these writers tend to reach for just one functional story about a brain subsystem – the story that fits with their Big Idea – while ignoring other roles the same system might play. This can lead to a comical inconsistency across different books, and even within the oeuvre of a single author.

Is dopamine “the molecule of intuition”, as Jonah Lehrer risibly suggested in The Decisive Moment (2009), or is it the basis of “the neural highway that’s responsible for generating the pleasurable emotions”, as he wrote in Imagine? (Meanwhile, Susan Cain’s Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking calls dopamine the “reward chemical” and postulates that extroverts are more responsive to it.) Other recurring stars of the pop literature are the hormone oxytocin (the “love chemical”) and mirror neurons, which allegedly explain empathy. Jonathan Haidt tells the weirdly unexplanatory micro-story that, in one experiment, “The subjects used their mirror neurons, empathised, and felt the other’s pain.” If I tell you to use your mirror neurons, do you know what to do? Alternatively, can you do as Lehrer advises and “listen to” your prefrontal cortex? Self-help can be a tricky business.

Cherry-picking

Distortion of what and how much we know is bound to occur, Paul Fletcher points out, if the literature is cherry-picked.

“Having outlined your theory,” he says, “you can then cite a finding from a neuroimaging study identifying, for example, activity in a brain region such as the insula . . . You then select from among the many theories of insula function, choosing the one that best fits with your overall hypothesis, but neglecting to mention that nobody really knows what the insula does or that there are many ideas about its possible function.”

But the great movie-monster of nearly all the pop brain literature is another region: the amygdala. It is routinely described as the “ancient” or “primitive” brain, scarily atavistic. There is strong evidence for the amygdala’s role in fear, but then fear is one of the most heavily studied emotions; popularisers downplay or ignore the amygdala’s associations with the cuddlier emotions and memory. The implicit picture is of our uneasy coexistence with a beast inside the head, which needs to be controlled if we are to be happy, or at least liberal. (In The Republican Brain, Mooney suggests that “conservatives and authoritarians” might be the nasty way they are because they have a “more active amygdala”.) René Descartes located the soul in the pineal gland; the moral of modern pop neuroscience is that original sin is physical – a bestial, demonic proto-brain lurking at the heart of darkness within our own skulls. It’s an angry ghost in the machine.

Indeed, despite their technical paraphernalia of neurotransmitters and anterior temporal gyruses, modern pop brain books are offering a spiritual topography. Such is the seductive appeal of fMRI brain scans, their splashes of red, yellow and green lighting up what looks like a black intracranial vacuum. In mass culture, the fMRI scan (usually merged from several individuals) has become a secular icon, the converse of a Hubble Space Telescope image. The latter shows us awe-inspiring vistas of distant nebulae, as though painstakingly airbrushed by a sci-fi book-jacket artist; the former peers the other way, into psychedelic inner space. And the pictures, like religious icons, inspire uncritical devotion: a 2008 study, Fletcher notes, showed that “people – even neuroscience undergrads – are more likely to believe a brain scan than a bar graph”.

In The Invisible Gorilla, Christopher Chabris and his collaborator Daniel Simons advise readers to be wary of such “brain porn”, but popular magazines, science websites and books are frenzied consumers and hypers of these scans. “This is your brain on music”, announces a caption to a set of fMRI images, and we are invited to conclude that we now understand more about the experience of listening to music. The “This is your brain on” meme, it seems, is indefinitely extensible: Google results offer “This is your brain on poker”, “This is your brain on metaphor”, “This is your brain on diet soda”, “This is your brain on God” and so on, ad nauseam. I hereby volunteer to submit to a functional magnetic-resonance imaging scan while reading a stack of pop neuroscience volumes, for an illuminating series of pictures entitled This Is Your Brain on Stupid Books About Your Brain.

None of the foregoing should be taken to imply that fMRI and other brain-investigation techniques are useless: there is beautiful and amazing science in how they work and what well-designed experiments can teach us. “One of my favourites,” Fletcher says, “is the observation that one can take measures of brain activity (either using fMRI or EEG) while someone is learning . . . a list of words, and that activity can actually predict whether particular words will be remembered when the person is tested later (even the next day). This to me demonstrates something important – that observing activity in the brain can tell us something about how somebody is processing stimuli in ways that the person themselves is unable to report. With measures like that, we can begin to see how valuable it is to measure brain activity – it is giving us information that would otherwise be hidden from us.”

In this light, one might humbly venture a preliminary diagnosis of the pop brain hacks’ chronic intellectual error. It is that they misleadingly assume we always know how to interpret such “hidden” information, and that it is always more reliably meaningful than what lies in plain view. The hucksters of neuroscientism are the conspiracy theorists of the human animal, the 9/11 Truthers of the life of the mind.

Steven Poole is the author of the forthcoming book “You Aren’t What You Eat”, which will be published by Union Books in October.

This article was updated on 18 September 2012.

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Autumn politics special

MARTIN O’NEILL FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Shakespeare, our contemporary: the Bard 400 years later

To mark the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death, our contributors nominate the works that speak most urgently to the 21st century.

Dodgy dossiers, smiling tyrants and just wars: Rowan Williams on Henry V

Financial interests dictate the inception of an international war; dossiers are drawn up to quiet the moral qualms of a government and present the action as just; deep anxieties are aired about the duties of conscience in a dubious conflict; breaches of convention over the rights of prisoners are hastily brushed aside; but finally the role of this war in creating longer-term instability and loss of life is quietly but unmistakably flagged up.

It is not quite the synopsis of Henry V that those brought up on Olivier or even Branagh would recognise, but it is no less the play Shakespeare actually wrote, and it is the past 14 years that have helped us hear clearly these notes of moral darkness in the text. Underlying the play is the consistent theme of Shakespeare’s histories: a sharp tension around the legitimacy of the monarchy. That tension was also a pervasive subtext in Elizabethan politics and theology, and it is a measure of Shakespeare’s stature that he explores it so unsparingly. His Henry knows that he holds his authority as a result of his father’s usurpation; he is king because of a successful act of violence. Yet that authority is one which ought to allow him to absolve his subjects of any doubts as to the rightness of acts of violence committed in his service. It ought to be a matter of unequivocal holy duty. And because – whatever else he is – King Henry is no fool, he senses and expresses the moral tangle this leaves him in.

What authority does state power have when stripped of its magic?

Regime change (Richard II’s deposition) has been justified by citing the undoubted corruption and injustice of the old order (Richard’s chaotic, selfish rule); but once the sacred sanction of kingship has been overturned in this way, what legitimacy has the new order? Henry wants to be something of the “icon” earlier kings had been, and we see him both exploiting this iconic position and being exploited by others. Shakespeare allows us to see something of the inner anguish this entails; but he does not let us ignore the more immediate anguish of those who will pay with their lives (and their souls?) for this new order of force: the soldiers whose muted but tough prose questions Henry never quite deals with, despite his magnificent gift for poetic public rhetoric.

This is a play about what the moral sanctions are in the politics of an incipiently secularised world; what authority does state power have when it is stripped of its magic? Typically, Shakespeare does not offer a solution, but broadens out our sense of why there is a question here. It’s left to other plays – Lear, above all – to nudge us towards an answer in the visible, costly solidarity of powerful and powerless: no less a theologically charged theme for Shakespeare.

In Henry V, a play whose language is a shot-silk blend of the triumphalistic and the bleak, he presents us with an analysis of why we should worry about the ethical sanctions of power; why majoritarian tyranny, absolute monarchy or the comforting rhetoric of national paranoia will fail to silence the questions of a soldier on the eve of battle, a civilian facing slaughter in a captured city or a prisoner of war whose rights are overridden.

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A timely warning  from the blasted heath: Will Self on King Lear

It may be a reflection of my own time of life that I find Shakespeare’s King Lear the most resonant of his plays – but I also think it’s peculiarly relevant to the contemporary era; and more specifically to a small – but politically powerful – section of contemporary Britons: the middle-aged, property-owning middle class. For my own part, I may only be in my mid-fifties, but as with so many people at my time of life, health issues have already placed me vis-à-vis with the grinning skull beneath my own slackening skin.

The most savage social declivity now lies between young and old

The very moral-philosophic kernel of Lear lies in its portrayal of a man who has conflated his social identity with his true being: Lear gifts his kingdom to his daughters in anticipation of them loving him for who he is; but apart from the recalcitrant – and faithful – Cordelia, it transpires that his progeny can’t make this distinction; for them he is either the king, or nothing worthy of consideration at all.

Out on the blasted heath, attended by his Fool, and two others who can make this crucial distinction (Edgar and Kent), Lear descends into a maelstrom of confusion over what it is to be a person at all. “Out of my sight!” he inveighs against his loyal courtier Kent, who has the temerity to object to his sovereign’s rash behaviour; and Kent throws back at him: “See better, Lear; and let me still remain.”

From Cordelia’s Portion by Ford Madox Brown. Image: Phas/Uig via Getty Images

Remain Kent does, but he, like Edgar, is compelled to undergo the reverse transformation to Lear: they assume false social identities in order to hide their true and faithful being. This is the timeless existential dilemma that lies at the core of Lear: are we who others think we are, or are we simply the perpetual flux of ideas and emotions we find when, in extremis, we enquire too deeply within? But there’s a specific message for our own era as well; for are our increasingly long-lived, property-owning classes not like anti-Lears, hanging on to their semi-detached castles for grim death, rather than face up to the fact that they’ve raised little Regans and Gonerils?

The most savage social and economic declivity in contemporary Britain lies between the young and the old – the ageing cling to a Lear-like conception of ourselves: we believe we should be revered by and cared for by our children; yet our behaviour utterly belies this: we hang on to our property out of fear – fear that should we abandon it we’ll be dumped unceremoniously when the time comes, in a local-authority-funded care home, where we will be poorly attended to by knaves, fools and impersonators.

It is part of the great cultural convulsion of our era that the status of Shakespeare’s writings should be so moot during this, his quatercentennial year. Once viewed as foundational – together with the King James Bible – of the English canon, all that was once solidly papery now melts into pixels; and this, too, seems anticipated by Lear, which, with its recurrent motifs of seeing and sightlessness, culminates with its protagonists getting what they do indeed see: nothing. A fate foreseen by Lear in the very first scene: “Nothing can come of nothing.” Unfortunately, the British rentier class has been labouring under the delusion that it has been getting something for nothing for too long to heed this warning from the blasted heath of four centuries past.

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Technology’s quest to kill off death: Imogen Stubbs on The Tempest

In 1989 I was in a production of Othello at the Other Place – a wonderful, mad theatre that began and ended life as a corrugated iron shed in a car park. Before the theatre was vacated – to be bulldozed the following day – Trevor Nunn made a very moving speech to the cast and crew and then read Prospero’s speech from Act IV, Scene One of The Tempest:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

I wept. We all did. It was unbearable – especially for the not unambitious actors among us – to think that nothing endured. Whatever the achievement, however lauded, we would “leave not a rack behind” – “rack” as in “cloud”.

Now, 27 years later, I have changed. And the world has changed. I am impaled on the speech in a very different way. It seems now to offer wisdom, solace and something between relief and a reprieve: the reassuring idea that a heartbeat decides when our little life begins and ends – not a search engine and the Delete key.

It is increasingly difficult to melt into the air and dissolve. The idea that our life is temporal and seasonal seems out of touch in the 21st-century world of virtual reality, data, microchips, holograms, DNA, genetic engineering, plastic surgery and all-year-round strawberries. It’s a world that denies history if it is uncomfortable, and the future if it is distressing, and treats death, wisdom and ageing, and indeed narrative, like wrongs to be hushed up. The purpose is to endorse hedonism and materialism – to protect our “revels” from any unnecessary worry that the end is in sight.

It’s a world that actively encourages the dangerous fantasy of eternal youth and the delusion that no one ever has to leave the nursery; a world gullible enough to accept “inbuilt obsolescence” in objects but not in ourselves. It’s a world clutching at tinsel as it falls over the abyss.

Many of us leave behind the ultimate rack: “the cloud”. The cloud sounds heavenly – all fluffy and white and pure – and holds our essence for the foreseeable future if not for ever, preserved and accessible after death with a mere password. There is something Faustian in the pact.

Ironically, Shakespeare contradicts his own speech. Through his plays he lives on – and they are performed all over the world, including at the resurrected “great Globe” itself. He is not the soul of one age but for all time, whether he is being performed through the medium of hip-hop or by Lego figures or in Klingon.

But of course his work can be preserved for longer and longer as technology advances. And who knows? Maybe one day Shakespeare’s body will be dug up in a car park and his DNA will be analysed and reassembled and then, like the Globe, Shakespeare will be reconstructed anew.

He can buy Richard III a latte at the Globe café and try to justify his misrepresentation of him, before whipping out his laptop and composing a masterpiece about genetic engineering to be performed by holograms – being sure to save it to the cloud, with the password “BraveNewWorld”.

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How human beings learn to hate: Howard Jacobson on The Merchant of Venice

Can it be that we go on finding new meanings in Shakespeare, or is it that he gave us the language to think afresh about ourselves? It is through Shakespeare that we know what being modern is: free from irrationality, alone in a world we understand imperfectly and usually too late. And free from political or religious dogma, too. The play’s the thing in Shakespeare – the interrelation of character our only guide to truth. What does Shakespeare believe? For all dramatic purposes, nothing. An age that tries as hard as ours to fall back into ideological credulousness – desperate to find answers in systems – more than ever needs Shakespeare’s scepticism.

I have been immersed in The Merchant of Venice for the past couple of years, having accepted a publisher’s challenge to write a contemporary novel that takes its inspiration from that play. What is immediately remarkable to anyone watching or reading the play is its here-and-nowness, the raciness of the dialogue and the modernity of the agitation shaking most of the characters, despite its very particular Venetian setting, the old stories and fables that peep through its narrative, and the medieval attitudes towards Jews that move the action from near-languorous comedy to frenetic tragedy.

The very first line is a confession of what sounds much like a 21st-century malady. Antonio, the merchant, is depressed: “In sooth, I know not why I am so sad.” Hamlet confesses to a similar ailment (“I have of late,—but wherefore I know not,—lost all my mirth”) but we believe his “of late”, whereas Antonio strikes us as someone who never had much in the way of mirth to begin with. His circle quickly reveals itself to be self-engrossed; precious about its membership; indulgent towards its own whimsicality and rapacity alike; violently disposed towards anyone outside it. Shakespeare would return to Venice for a setting, again to show the virulence of a prejudice: first Shylock the Jew, then Othello the Moor. Why Venice, we might ask, and the answer could have something to do with the cosmopolitan nature of the city. But essentially these antagonisms could have been found anywhere that Jews or Moors happened to be. And there weren’t that many of either in the London of Shakespeare’s time. The subject isn’t Venetian intolerance; it’s that germ of cruel vindictiveness that poisons every man and woman, even those possessed of grace and manners, when they encounter difference.

This doesn’t mean that either play is sentimental about its victims. Othello is the author of his own downfall, as is Shylock. But downfalls are contingent in Shakespeare. We can’t say that Shylock would have insisted on his pound of flesh if his daughter, Jessica, had not been stolen from him. We can’t even say he ever really intended to claim it. It began as a daring joke – Shylock meeting Antonio’s insolence with insolence of his own. But mischief breeds in Shakespeare. Events become uncoupled from intention and end in undreamt-of sorrow. The plays refuse the politics of blame or exculpation. This is how people are and there’s an end of it. There is no right way to be. Shylock believes he has justice on his side, and he does. But his obduracy is still his own; he can’t blame it all on Jew-hating. Neither are the Jew-haters vindicated in their loathing: to them, Shylock is simply acting out the savage logic of his faith, but they are parties to his shaming and are demeaned by it.

With Shylock stolen from for a second time, baited sadistically and ordered to convert to Christianity – which says little for the mercy Portia pleads with him to show – their mock-pastoral idyll turns sour. Mistrust mars their revels and, after all their graceful talk of love, the final note, struck by that upmarket thug, Gratiano, is a gratuitous obscenity. For Shylock a ring is a token of devotion. For Gratiano it’s the opportunity to pun on a vagina.

Whatever Shakespeare knew or thought of Jews, the stage is rancid and depleted once the Jew has left it. Not so much on account of any virtue of his own, but because his defeat tastes so bitter, and there is no joy in the company of those who have triumphed over him. Shakespeare never lectures, but he teaches that we needn’t revere a man to pity him: it is enough to recognise the humanity we share. But then we share that with the wolfish characters, too. This is Shakespeare’s truth for all time: that heroes fail of heroism, that our passions delude us into hatred, that whoever thinks he has hold of right or wisdom has hold of nothing, and that our little life is rounded with a sleep.

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Finding new words for a war on terror: James Shapiro on Macbeth

Its atmosphere is murky from the start. Regicide, political repression, betrayal, equivocation and another round of regime change soon follow. Toss in a childless and compensatory marriage, driving ambition and sinister, other-worldly forces, and it is easy to see why Macbeth continues to speak with such immediacy.

It seems hardly coincidental that the play was first staged in the aftermath of a failed terrorist attack. Shakespeare wrote Macbeth in the fraught months following the Gunpowder Plot, when 20 or so disaffected Catholic gentry tried to blow up the House of Lords while the royal family and the political and religious leadership of England were gathered there. King James himself estimated that had the plot succeeded perhaps 30,000 innocent Londoners would have died in the explosion and engulfing fires.

James McAvoy in the Scottish play, 2013. Photograph: Johan Persson

In the ensuing months, the conspirators and their Jesuit handlers were hunted down, tortured, tried and brutally executed. Macbeth, which speaks so powerfully to our historical moment, was steeped in its own, one in which contemporaries struggled to understand where such evil came from, whether neighbours who worshipped differently could be trusted, and what it meant to have come so close to large-scale destruction.

 Modern playgoers often complain about the difficulty of anachronism in Shakespeare: words that even illiterate Elizabethan playgoers easily understood but we no longer grasp. It can work the other way around, too: in Macbeth, one word in particular, familiar to children today, would have gone over the heads of many at the Globe Theatre. That foreign-sounding and multisyllabic term occurs early in the play, when Macbeth struggles with whether he should kill his king and kinsman, Duncan:

If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly. If th’assassination
Could trammel up the consequence . . .

One can imagine the mumbling in the pit when Richard Burbage recited this speech in the spring of 1606 – “What did he say? Assassination?” – for this is the word’s first recorded use. Shakespeare had likely come upon a version of it in Richard Knolles’s General History of the Turks (1603), where he would have read of the “assassins, a company of most desperate and dangerous men among the Mahometans”. The term apparently lodged in his memory, for in the wake of the attempt on the life of King James in November 1605, he refigured it and coined “assassination”.

Even as Shakespeare went back to medieval Britain to discover a story that spoke to his own times, I return to this Jacobean tragedy to find a play that speaks most directly to ours. To naysayers who wonder how a play about devilish forces still proves so terrifying in our secular age, I need only point out that alone among Shakespeare’s plays this malevolent tragedy retains such power that actors still fear to pronounce its name.

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An erotic playground for gender-fluid times: Andrew Marr on As You Like It

In this endlessly difficult world, comedy is just as valid a response as tragedy; and great comedy is at least as difficult to write as great tragedy. In choosing Shakespeare’s sunniest, wittiest comedy, rather than something dark and tangled, I am not taking an easy option. In these dark days, economically and internationally, there is no better time to remind ourselves that potential Edens are inside us and all around us. Shakespeare was obsessed by power – above all, power badly exercised and corrupted. The poet of an intensely hierarchical age, and a lifelong loather of puritanism, Shakespeare the anarchist comes through in As You Like It.

The play would have been better titled Rosalind, after the novel it was based upon. Of all Shakespeare’s heroines, none is bigger. Rosalind is saner than Juliet or Ophelia; wittier than even Beatrice; and at least as great an advocate for human love as Imogen or Miranda. Unlike them, she overwhelms the boundaries of her play, just as Falstaff overwhelms Lancastrian England, and Hamlet overwhelms Danish politics. She belongs in the very top flight of Shakespearean character invention; and is the only one in that company who is female. If you don’t love Rosalind, you don’t love being alive.

Cartoon: George Leigh

As You Like It is set everywhere and nowhere, a dense green parallel world, both France (the Ardennes) and not-France (the Forest of Arden). It’s a European woody paradise, haunted by the memories of pagan mythology and Robin Hood; it’s a generalised Italianate Mediterranean republic of refugees. Arden is a free, genial anti-court, a realm of personal questing and endless witty conversation during which those great cynics, Jacques and Touchstone, challenge everything and introduce a sharp dose of nihilist vinegar into Arcadia.

This is a sweet world, but not a sickly or escapist one. It is also an exuberantly erotic world. The androgynous complexities of a girl-dressed-as-a-boy loving a boy and sometimes a girl makes the play especially interesting in these gender-fluid days, though in the end Rosalind is robustly in love with the muscle-bound and not enormously intelligent Orlando. Some of her sharp-tongued truth-telling about love and sex is as shocking as the most direct of Shakespeare’s sonnets; and yet, unlike with them, we always believe in the kindness of the intelligence behind the words.

 Around Arcadia, there remains the brutal world of power, hemming us in. Young wrestlers can be crippled for life, ancient retainers can be abruptly sacked, murder is plotted and outside the woodland a genuine tyrant prowls, as dangerous and illogical as Leontes or Lear. The wild wood is the zone of human refuge; but it has borders.

It is the goodness, balance and sanity of Rosalind and the exiled Duke which triumph over power-lust and cynicism. Human society is shit, Shakespeare seems to suggest, but not always and not inevitably. To pick up the refrain of a clown from another play, the rain it raineth every day; but not everywhere. Winter bites in the Ardennes, but sunlight dapples the Arden we carry inside ourselves; and in tough times, no truth matters more.

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In praise of sceptics against fanatics: Germaine Greer on Hamlet

Hamlet is possibly the most theatrical play ever written. This is not to say that it is the most histrionic or spectacular, or particularly replete with scenes and machines. Shakespeare’s theatre is unique in its unremitting awareness of the audience. The audience is the point of the action and supplies the context of the action. Schoolmen and aristocrats might condescend to the audience, but Shakespeare never did (another reason for believing that he was neither a schoolman nor an aristocrat). The audience is in the theatre before the action begins, and the action is allowed to begin by their kind forbearance. So whether in the brightness of a summer’s afternoon on Bankside or in a stuffy theatre in the West End, the audience must consent to believe that the action of Hamlet begins in the cold and dark on the windy battlements of Elsinore. On stage is a character who will be with us at the end; Horatio will witness pretty much the whole action of the play and, like the audience, be powerless to intervene.

 When we first see Hamlet himself he, too, is a silent witness of the goings-on in the “room of state” until he answers his mother’s question with a daring claim for any actor, that he has “that within which passeth show”. He claims integrity and the audience has no choice but to grant it. By doing so, we agree to travel with Hamlet through the treacherous Danish court and to keep faith with him even if he should appear to be deranged. We are never allowed entirely to suspend our disbelief; disbelief is part of the point. Hamlet is not incapable of action: he refuses to be the dupe of circumstance or to be corrupted by the Machiavellian ethos of the court. To pretend that he has some kind of duty to avenge his father’s murder is to accept the convention of the revenge tragedy as some kind of moral imperative. Rather than avenge his father’s murder, Hamlet expiates it, so ending the cycle of evil.

Of overriding importance, then, are Hamlet’s soliloquies. These are not mere mumblings or musings but Hamlet’s explaining himself to his allies the audience, who will have been sorely tried by his assumed guises. We believe the soliloquies as we believe little else in the play. So, it is the more to be regretted that the soliloquy most likely to be dropped is the last one, “How all occasions do inform against me”; at this point the audience could be pardoned for shouting to Hamlet not to follow the example of Fortinbras, who is sending 20,000 men “to their graves like beds” for a “fantasy and trick of fame”.

As it happens, Hamlet goes open-eyed to his death as an innocent victim, and Denmark is redeemed. Even so, the audience is not allowed to relax; the new ruler of Denmark will be Fortinbras. A corrupt regime has been replaced by the military.

Doubt is not Hamlet’s problem, but his duty. To avoid contributing to the cycle of evil, he must cling to his disbelief and resist precipitate action. Even so the rest of us must resist indoctrination; in the world as in the theatre, scepticism is our only defence against fanaticism. 

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Ralph Steadman

An ode to global forgiveness: Simon Callow on The Tempest

Shakespeare’s plays have the curious capacity to be about whatever you want them to be about. Recently, Hamlet has become a play about CCTV cameras: Denmark’s a prison, and all that. In the Thirties, in the light of Freud, it was an Oedipal drama; in the Sixties, an existential tragedy. For me, though, the play that creates the biggest echoes in our lives is The Tempest, the last play Shakespeare wrote of which he was sole author. We have had existential productions (early Sixties), post-colonial productions (late Sixties), all-singing, all-dancing productions (Seventies), the-world-as-theatre productions (Eighties). But though all of these approaches are not without justification, it is at heart a revenge play.

It seems to me that we live increasingly in a world fuelled by revenge, a world that seeks to punish past misdemeanours, whether political, sexual, financial or imperial – an angry world. In The Tempest, Prospero, cruelly usurped and cast out by his brother, deals with his anger. Instead of punishing the perpetrators of the injustice against him, he succeeds, by a monumental effort of will, in forgiving them:

Though with their high wrongs I am struck to the quick,
Yet with my nobler reason ’gainst my fury
Do I take part: the rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance: they being penitent,
The sole drift of my purpose doth extend
Not a frown further. Go release them, Ariel . . .

However elusive, surely this is the way the world must move if it is to survive.

The play is especially moving and powerful because it seems to represent Shakespeare wrestling with his own bitterness and anger, as he does in Timon of Athens – but there he fails to achieve closure. The world he puts on stage in The Tempest is, if anything, more dismaying than Timon’s: scheming and murderous courtiers, faithless brothers, a hopelessly sozzled butler, a witless jester, a runtish monster – a “freckled whelp hag-born”, as Prospero viciously describes him, “not honour’d with/A human shape”. Apart from one honest courtier, old Gonzalo, all Prospero’s hopes for humanity repose in his daughter, Miranda, and his usurping brother’s son, Ferdinand. Their goodness, united in marriage, will somehow offer hope for the future. Shakespeare only just manages to make these paragons human, living creatures, but he achieves it in the end: we believe in them, Shakespeare’s and Prospero’s last hope for mankind.

Forgiveness is finally achieved. The world can start again. Prospero renounces his magic, liberates Ariel, and owns up to his own shadow: Caliban. “This thing of darkness I/Acknowledge mine.” Returning the island he has ruled to its native inhabitants, he goes back to Naples a wiser man.

. . . Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant;
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be reliev’d by prayer,
Which pierces so, that it assaults
Mercy itself, and frees all faults.

The Tempest should be our textbook in world-healing. 

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Pure confusion – the true human experience: Colm Tóibín on The Winter’s Tale

Why is Leontes, King of Sicilia, so insanely paranoid, so jealous, so angry, so whimsical and bullying, so ready to accuse and listen to no one and impose his will?

There might have been a time when audiences would have needed some show of motive, when Hermione, his queen, and Polixenes would have been asked to display some more open affection for each other or offer some sign that would then have justified Leontes’s response.

Now, because we know so much about the intimacy of power – not merely absolute power, but any kind of power – we see Leontes as our contemporary. He works in a company where he has the corner office. Or he is at the end of a phone. He throws tantrums. He sends emails.

Or he has been elected to office. Or he is a dictator. He isn’t just on television; he owns the cable company; he owns the production company that makes the programmes. He and his antics are so all-pervasive in our culture, and so widely reported and emulated, that Leontes will even remind audiences how certain women behave when they get to be in charge.

Yet there is another aspect of the play that makes it even more important for us now, and that is Paulina, the one who is unafraid. When we think of the phrase “speaking truth to power”, she is the best example we have. Measured, fearless, morally serious – she has come to matter in our time because she is so scarce, so badly needed.

There are two other aspects of the play that make it essential for us now. One is the middle part where Leontes and Paulina disappear. This can often seem too long, too much a distraction, until we start paying attention to it. Then we relish the wit, the way the words are chosen and conjured with, and the sheer playfulness. This may not seem a good example of the moral seriousness that has been at the heart of the drama earlier. Rather, it is an exalted example of the mind at play. It offers a sort of imaginative openness that is filled with sharp intelligence tempered with wonder and humour.

But the aspect of The Winter’s Tale that will make it matter not just now, but at all times, is the ending. Leontes’s grief, the sense of some order restored, the notion that sheer pain can be matched with its very opposite, are dramatised. The moral is that the experience of pure confusion is perhaps the truest experience we will have on Earth.

And then, as the play comes to an end, we are presented with the idea that the mind can imagine miracles, the theatre can work with transformation and that the dull business of being alive can be brightened and made into shimmering strangeness. The last scene is a tribute from a great artist to the power of the imagination; it is a prayer of thanks to illusion.

There will never be a time when these moments of the play will not lift us out of our sphere into some realm where we feel we may truly belong, even if only in our own imaginations or in our highest, sweetest, most outlandish dreams.

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Olivier’s Othello: A new poem by Daljit Nagra

The invention of Race and its run on the blood.
A man teased from his skin then back into skin.
The switch executed on stage. This time Olivier
plays the man. Olivier whose Christian name
is surname to empire’s swashbuckling generals.
He was destined to be the General. No wonder,
William, you distance the master from the Moor
so we hear of Othello amongst Anthropophagi
at which Olivier’s blackface bares the exotic.
Your raw politics of ink when actors must vent
waves of iambs on a feral reek over the ages.
To pinnacle with leering Olivier on a parapet,
Goats and monkeys! So the darks of his bulbous
eyes roll upwards to play the sport of the hot
globe kept back. Aided by your, [He] falls in
a trance. Africa afloat on Arabian charms.

A version preserved by the National Theatre
of Great Britain, adored by Oscar nominations
must be fair-minded. Perhaps I should weigh
the finale in terms of Desdemona, white as
Civilisation, being savoured, while snuffed,
by a nasty mass for her privileged ignorance?
Or admire Othello’s proud speech, a savage
in dashing robes with a blade, the face-to-face
of hero and anti-hero, as he calmly exploits our
sound traditions. To martyr the Moor within
so we win our catharsis. Or equally perverse
that Olivier, who’d persevered under polish,
now arises like a Deus ex Machina, in cahoots
with his Renaissance bard, to execute justice.
The curtain must fall for the white man’s bow.

Have I misunderstood the play? If art begins
in dreams should I turn on the staged instigator?
Which is he, the poet’s piercing aside – the devil?
Is he also the black man in his act of playing up,
or his guise – the idol who administers the shame?
The one who pulls the strings of horror is least
rewarding. He’s the poster-boy for his cohort.
How can he be hurt now his cause can’t be hurt?
Ah Swan of Avon, or are you the Upstart Crow,
you’re always at play in my head. To leave me
irked by my applause when the dream lives on.

 

Daljit Nagra’s books include Look We Have Coming to Dover! – for which he won the 2007 Forward Prize – and Ramayana: a Retelling.

This article first appeared in the 21 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Shakespeare 400 years Iater