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Slumlands — filthy secret of the modern mega-city

Across the world, slums are home to a billion people. The rich elite want the shanty towns cleared,

There is a long curve of water and, as far as the eye can see, there are shacks, garbage, washing, tin, bits of wood, scraps of cloth, rats and children. The water is grey, but at the edges there's a flotsam of multicoloured plastic rubbish. This is the Estero de San Miguel, the front line in an undeclared war between the rich and poor of Manila. Figures emerge from creaky doors to move along bits of walkway. In the deep distance is the dome of a mosque; beyond that are skyscrapers.

Mena Cinco, a community leader here, volunteers to take me in - but only about 50 yards. After that, she cannot guarantee my safety. At the bottom of a ladder, the central mystery of the Estero de San Miguel is revealed: a long tunnel, four feet wide, dark except for the occasional bare bulb. It's just like an old coal mine, with rickety joists, shafts of light and pools of what I'm hoping is water on the floor. All along the tunnel are doors into the homes of as many as 6,000 people.

We knock on the first one that's ajar. Oliver Baldera comes blinking to it, pulling on his shirt. On the floor behind him are his four kids, eating ice cream. His wife joins him.

The room is eight feet by eight and forms their entire dwelling space. It contains everything they own: a television, four bowls of ice cream, a light bulb, a mattress and the clothes they are wearing. "We've been here more than ten years," he says. "There's no choice. I'm a carpenter in the construction industry. We came from Mindanao."

Why did he move? "Because of poverty. It's easier to get a job here and I can earn 400 pesos a day. I can send the kids to school and they eat three times a day - but it's not enough. I need more space."

“But they're happy," Mena chips in.

Further along, there's a shaft of light and some kids are splashing about in a blow-up pool. Mena makes them sing. One of them comes up to me. "What's it like living here?" I ask. Mena mutters something to him in Filipino. "Happy," he says, and smiles.

This is a place where you cannot stride along without hitting your head or bruising your elbow, so people creep and shuffle. Here, you cannot go to the toilet without standing in a queue. Here, sex between a man and a woman has tohappen within breathing distance of their kids and earshot of 20 other families. This is the classic 21st-century slum. A billion people live in them, one in seven of the world's population. By 2050, according to the United Nations, there could be three billion. The slum is the filthy secret of the modern mega-city, the hidden achievement of 20 years ofuntrammelled market forces, greed, neglect and graft.

Yet Mena, at my elbow, is feeding me an incessant mantra: "We are happy; there is social cohesion here; we are organised; it is clean." The reason is this - the Estero de San Miguel has been condemned. The president of the Philippines, Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino, has decided to clear Manila's slums and send half a million people back to the countryside. That suits the business elite and the political clans that run the country fine. "Many of our people are no longer interested in agriculture, so we need to give them incentives to go back," says Cecilia Alba, head of the national Housing and Urban Development Co-ordinating Council. "If we had to rehouse the slum-dwellers inside Manila in medium-rise housing, it would cost a third of the national budget."

At the top of the list for relocation are the residents of the Estero de San Miguel. They will not go without a fight. "We will barricade and we will revolt if we have to," Mena says. "We will resist slum clearance and we will fight to defend our community. We are happy here."

This is not an idle threat. On 28 April, residents of the Laperal slum a few miles away engaged demolition teams with Molotov cocktails and guns in a riot that injured six policemen and numerous slum-dwellers. An arson attack had wiped out most of the area's dwellings ten days earlier.

Technically, global policy is on the side of the rioters. In 2003, an influential UN report, entitled The Challenge of Slums, signalled a shift away from the old slum-clearance policies and recognised that informal settlements make positive contributions to economic development. They house new migrants; because they are dense, they use land efficiently; they are culturally diverse; and they offer numerous opportunities for ragged-trousered entrepreneurs.

“Ten years ago, we used to dream that cities would become slum-free," says Muhammad Khadim of UN-Habitat. "The approach has changed. People see the positives. The approach now is not to clear them but to improve them gradually [and] regularise land tenure."

Cameron Sinclair, who runs the non-profit design firm Architecture for Humanity, goes further. "A slum is a resilient urban animal. You cannot pry it away," he tells me. "It's like a good parasite. There are some parasites that attack the body and you have to get rid of them but, within the city, the informal settlement is a parasite that acts in harmony with the city, keeps it in check."

Sinclair, whose organisation has upgraded slums in Brazil, Kenya and South Africa, believes that modern city design should not only tolerate slums but learn from them - and even emulate them. "To be honest, what we lack in a place like London is that the lower classes can't live in central London and have to commute for two and a half hours to do the jobs that keep people going."

What has driven the new thinking is ugly economic facts. After the 1970s, there was a sharp slowdown in the provision of social housing. The free-market revolution in the cities has led to the retreat of state provision, the rise of the informal economy and the rapid impoverishment of the rural poor. As a result, we are having to ask ourselves a question that would have made the 19th-century fathers of city planning shudder: do we have to learn to live with slums for ever?

It's a question to which the Filipino political elite have defiantly answered no.

“Should I buy them ice cream?" Regina "Gina" Lopez asks me, tilting her white Stetson as she leads me through what is left of a slum called the Estero de Paco. Teenage boys wearing hip-hop clothes and baseball hats are crowding, shirtless, around Gina. It's one of their birthdays, so should she buy them ice cream? Gina's trouser suit is the colour of ice cream. She is lithe, slinky and 61 years old. Among the 30 people with her are two cops, a media team of six, guys from the local community, her bodyguards, factotums and a man in dark glasses who is carrying her handbag.

Gina is a TV star, philanthropist, boss of the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission and, most importantly, a member of the Lopez family. Lopez Inc owns much of downtown Manila - the energy company, a TV empire, a phone company - and has interests in all kinds of infrastructure, including water. Who better than Gina, in a country untroubled by worries about conflict of interest, to lead the forcible removal of slum-dwellers from the waterways?

The Estero de Paco used to have slums right down to the water's edge, just like the San Miguel. Now, instead of shacks, there is a neat border of agapanthus and rubber plants. State-of-the-art oxidation units are turning the brown sludge into something chemically close to H2O. Into the space that has been cleared, work gangs are laying a wide-bore sewage pipe.

As Gina approaches, a group of women from the slum falls into line and salutes. The women are middle-aged and poor; their T-shirts bear the words "River Warriors". They stand to attention and Gina, Prada-clad, goes into a drill routine: "River Warriors, atten . . . shun!" Then there are slogans about honour and playing for the team and some more of the drill, before they all fall about laughing. "I ordered them to dive into the water," she giggles.

The idea behind the River Warriors is serious. The clearance of the Estero de Paco was "non-negotiable". The Warriors' job is to make sure that those who have been cleared do not come back. "They will poo here! They will throw garbage," Gina says. "They would come back, if we didn't guard the place. So we work with the ones who are compliant. To make a change like this, you have to work with a chosen few, the vanguard."

The clearance programme works like a giant scalpel. Four metres of land is all that is needed to create the easement for the waste pipe, so a second, deeper layer of slums remains - you can see where something has sheared through walls, windows, dirt, alleyways. This is social engineering on a vast scale. It's what the government has decreed for half a million people. Like the slum-clearers of 19th-century London and New York, Gina has a missionary enthusiasm. "You can't live well if you're faced with the constant smell of faeces, right? You can't live a decent life on top of a sewer. Even if those people want to stay there, [they can't because] it has a wider impact on the city, the environment: we can't clean the water and bring the river back to life if they're there; the crime and sickness have a big impact on the environment."

With Gina out of earshot, two of the River Warrior women quietly tell me that they are secret returnees. They were moved on to a place called Calauan, four hours away by road, but have come back. I demand to see Calauan. "No problem," says Gina, flipping open her mobile phone. "Get me aviation."

The chopper skims low across Manila Bay. It's fringed with slums and, out in the bay, there are homes on stilts. "Even the sea is squatted," Monchet Olives, Gina's chief of staff, tells me. Soon, the skyscraper outline of downtown Manila disappears. We're above rice paddies; in the distance, there are mountains. Calauan comes into view - neat rows of single-storey housing, their tin roofs glinting. The whole complex houses about 6,000 families and there is room for many more.

On the streets, density is not a problem. The public space is deserted. There's a playground; there's a school with the name Oscar Lopez painted on the roof. The problem is - as Monchet concedes - there is no electricity, no running water and no prospect of ever getting any. And no jobs. "When it comes to electricity, we're between a rock and a hard place," he says. "Many of the new residents have never been used to paying bills, and the electricity company, to make the investment, needs an income stream that they just can't provide."

I notice that we're being shadowed by two soldiers, in camouflage and with assault rifles, on motorbikes. "That's because of the New People's Army. Guerrilla activity is what made them abandon this place for ten years."

Deep in the jungle? "No, just up there on the hill." Monchet waves his finger in the general direction of the landscape, which suddenly looks a lot like the treeline in the opening credits of Apocalypse Now.

Ruben Petrache was one of those who moved here from the Estero de Paco. He is in his fifties and has been seriously ill. His home is a spacious terraced hut. It has a tin roof, tinfoil in­sulation to keep the heat down, a pretty garden and a "mezzanine" arrangement that creates two bedrooms, such as you would see in a loft. Ruben's English is not so good, so Monchet translates: "What he's saying is that although the community is disrupted, he thinks it's better here. For him, at least. Once you get here, after a while, you realise that you'd become accustomed to conditions that were insanitary. You learn to move on, live in a new way."

For electricity, he points to the solar panel; for water, to the barrel collecting rainwater on his porch. Are there any downsides?

“It would be better if there was a factory here, because we need more jobs," Monchet summarises. Later, with a translator, I work out what Ruben, hand-picked by the camp's authorities, was trying to say: "What the people need is a job. We need a company nearby so that we don't have to go to Manila. Also, we need electricity. Many residents here know how to fix electric fans, radios, but the problem is, even if they have the skills, they cannot [use] it because there is no electricity here - so they are forced to go to Manila to find work and earn money to buy food.

“We are hard workers. If we don't do anything, we might die of hunger here. That's why many go back to Manila: to look for work and earn money."
In the covered market, the stalls are stocked with meat, rice and vegetables but there are more stallholders than shoppers. Gloria Cruz, a 38-year-old mother, is holding forth on a kara­oke machine to three toddlers, two other mums, the ArmaLite-toting soldiers and me. After a couple of verses, she hits the pause button. "My husband goes to Manila to work," she says. "He comes back at weekends. It's the same for everybody. There's nothing here."

Felino Palafox is an architect who specialises in the construction of vast, space-age projects in the Middle East and Asia - mosques, Buddhist temples, futuristic towers on the Persian Gulf - always for people with money to burn.

Now, however, he wants to save the Estero de San Miguel: to rebuild it, in situ, with new materials. The plan is to clear it bit by bit and put inmodular housing. Each plot will be ten square metres; the ground floor will be reserved for retail and tricycle parking, the floors above extending out above the walkway, just as slum-dwellers build their homes - "stealing the air from the planning authorities", Palafox calls it. "The slum-dwellers," he adds, "are experts at live-work space design. They spontaneously do mixed-use! We just have to learn from them."

From the roof of the tower block in Makati, the central business district, where his practice has its headquarters, he gives me a primer in what has gone wrong. He indicates the neighbouring tower blocks - "monuments to graft" - and the gated compounds downtown where the rich live. To the government, which says his design is too expensive, he says: "OK, the total cost of rehousing slum-dwellers in situ is 30 per cent of GDP [but] I calculate we lose about 30 per cent of the country's wealth through corruption. If we didn't have corruption, we wouldn't need to tolerate slums." He sees the Estero de San Miguel as a test case: if he can make it work there, it's scalable to each of the city's riverside slums. So the stakes are huge.

Father Norberto Carcellar, who has worked for much of his life with Manila's poor, thinks that the elite are engaged in a huge self-deception about the question of slum clearance: "We have to recognise the value of slum-dwellers to the city. These are the ones who drive your car, clean your house and run your store. If these people were cleared from the city, the city would die. Slum-dwellers add social, political and economic value to the city."

That sentiment would have seemed alien to our grandparents' generation: I can still hear mine, brought up in Edwardian poverty in a coal and cotton town in northern England, spitting out the word "slum" with disgust. For them, slums meant a dog-eat-dog, dirty world where solidarity could not flourish and people lived like animals and treated their kids worse. Thirty years of globalisation have produced something which defies that stereotype. With Mena at my side, I'm about to witness it.

As it is Saturday night, there is a full complement of beefy guys with sticks, rice flails and flashlights - the volunteer police force of the Estero de San Miguel. Mena and I turn off into an alleyway opposite a McDonald's. You would hardly know it's there. The passage narrows, jinks around, and suddenly it feels as if I am in a novel by Charles Dickens.

On a bridge that is less than a metre wide, a man is squatting beside a barbecue. Because of the smoke, I don't see that it is a bridge until
I'm on it, or that below us is the canal, which is about two metres wide here. The dwellings are built so close together that the mothers peering out of the upstairs bedrooms, made of wooden boxes, could shake their neighbours' hands. If you'd decided to remake Oliver Twist as an expressionist film and this was the proposed set design, you would probably sack the designer, saying: "It's too much, too grotesque."

We head down into the tunnel, stooping now, because it is less than five feet high. After passing a poker game and a stray chicken, I come to a store that is run by Agnes Cabagauan. It sells the same things as every slum store in the world: sachets of Silvikrin hair product, Cif, Head & Shoulders shampoo, the Filipino version of Marlboro cigarettes, lighters, tampons and chewing gum. "My parents helped me set up [the store] to pay for my education," Agnes tells me.

What are you studying?

“Business admin. I have a degree. I also have a day job in a large corporation - coding in a sales department."

And you live here? "Yes. I was born here." She is 22 years old.

Then we run into Mena's son; he's an engineering student. As we cross another bridge, the unmistakable whizz and pop of something digital come blasting across the stagnant water. It's an internet café. There are nine computers crammed into a plywood hut. A dog yaps and runs around; the light is harsh. Some kids are on Facebook. Others are playing online poker. One young woman is doing her CV, another is engrossed in a game called Audition. She, too, is at college, she tells me, multitasking between her BlackBerry and the game.

Business admin? Yup.

In the space of a hundred yards, I have encountered three graduates, a DIY police force and the social media revolution. As I become used to the smoke, the wail and chatter of children, the chickens and the confined space, I learn what a billion people have had to learn: it's not so bad. "Other places have prostitution. We don't," Mena says. "We get drunks and a bit of drug-taking but it's under control. We look out for each other. We can see everything that happens - it's one big family. The main job for the volunteer police force is to look out for arsonists. Settlements under threat of clearance have a habit of getting burned down." As she discourses on the fine details of social policy in the five-foot-high niche that is her living room and kitchen, I ask the question I should have posed when we first met. How did she become so politically literate?

“I majored in political science at the University of Manila."

What slum-dwellers have produced (and I've seen it not just here but in Cairo, Nairobi, Lima and La Paz) is something the slum clearance tsars of yesteryear would not recognise - the orderly, solidaristic slum, or what the UN calls the "slum of hope".

The debate, at the global level, is no longer about how fast to tear these places down but whether we can meet the rapidly developing aspirations of highly educated people in tin shacks. To those who dream that, as capitalism develops, it will eradicate slums, Sinclair of Architecture for Humanity says dream on. "You can't fight something that has a stronger model than you [do]. It's never going to happen again. The fact of it is that if you tried to do it in some of these informal settlements, they could take out the city . . . march on the central business district, and it's game over."

Paul Mason reports from Manila on Tuesday 16 August in "Slums 101" (Radio 4, 8pm) and on "Newsnight" (BBC2, 10.30pm).

This article first appeared in the 08 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Slum rule

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.

***

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.

***

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”.

***

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