Life's journey: pilgrims arrive at Mena in Saudi Arabia, carrying stones to throw at pillars symbolising Satan. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Birth of a religion

An interview with Tom Holland, author of In the Shadow of the Sword.

How much do we know about the birth of Islam? Much less than we think, argues the popular historian Tom Holland in his new book, In the Shadow of the Sword.

In Holland’s opinion, the Quran was written long after the death of Muhammad, Mecca is not necessarily the birthplace of the Prophet and modern Muslims’ reverence for their holy writings stops them from confronting the texts’ dubious historical origins.

Bryan Appleyard has described the conclusion of In the Shadow of the Sword as “seismic”; he wrote in the Sunday Times that “Holland’s book leaves almost no aspect of the traditional story of Islam intact”. Another reviewer likened its treatment of the Quran to Dan Brown’s Christianity-as-conspiracy in The Da Vinci Code, “though with a little more class”.

The religion that emerged as Islam by the 8th century was, Holland would argue, just one manifestation of the furthest-reaching moral and ethical metamorphosis in history. Other expressions of the phenomenon were what we now call Judaism and Christianity – faiths that he suggests had taken on something like the form they wear today by the time of Muhammad, but similarly were once swirls of beliefs and doctrines.

Holland’s tale of how Islam came to define itself and its past is only one part of a much broader panorama: one that is ultimately about how Jews, Christians and Muslims all came by their understanding of religion. Does he present a bold new account that undermines Islam’s grip on its own past, or, as I argue, spin out a rich but speculative tale of the possible birth of three religions as novel tools to grapple with an era of geopolitical conflict and rivalry?

Nabeelah Jaffer

Nabeelah Jaffer Your chapters on the ambi­guity of early Christianity and Judaism have slipped under the radar amid the general buzz that you “rubbish” Islam and the expectant wait for some sort of backlash. How doyou feel about the assumption that Muslims are more likely to respond to challenging ideas with violent anger than followers of other religions? And do you think there will be a few far-right attempts to appropriate your ideas?

Tom Holland I think it is one measure of theeffect of the [Salman] Rushdie affair in this country that it is now widely taken for granted that writing anything about Islam will make angry men with beards – and probably hooks as well! – come to kill you. Whenever I have told people what the book was about, the word “fatwa” has invariably surfaced.

That being so, it was probably inevitable that the most eye-catching chapters in the book would be the ones about Islam. But why should any Muslim be offended by what I have to say? Mine is a non-believer’s attempt to explain a puzzle that Muslims, if they have faith, would deny was a puzzle at all. As an adult, I struggle to square my absolute conviction that Abraham and Moses never existed with the occasional flaring of a residual Christian faith. I hope that the resulting tension has been good for the book. Yes, it is sceptical; but no, it is never contemptuous of the longing of people to know God.

NJ I agree. I think both upset Muslims and pleased “Islamophobes” perceive in revisionism a threat to the religious narrative where none exists. The questions that you set out to answer only appear when you take a divine presence out of the equation.

You wrestle, for example, with the “bewilderingly eclectic array of sources” in the Quran, Abrahamic and otherwise. A Muslim would take this as proof of divine input and a revelation which encompasses Judaism and Christianity as part of a prophetic tradition. As a non-Muslim, you rule out this answer and search for an alternative scenario. Presenting a potential secular alternative to the “God” story doesn’t negate the narrative upheld by believers. So, turning to your secular alternative, how does it differ from traditional accounts?

TH All three religions, it seems to me, emerged out of the same melting pot – and yet all three have constructed backstories that aim to occlude the fact. In the first three centuries after Christ, Jews and Christians may have had a consciousness of themselves as peoples with distinct identities, but they remained unclear where precisely the border between them lay.

There were Jews who believed that Jesus had been the Messiah and there were Christians who followed the Jewish law – and it took an unacknowledged alliance between bishops and rabbis, in the centuries after the emperor Constantine, to ensure that what had previously been an open frontier became a no-man’s land. Similarly, a lot of Muslim historiography seems to me to have been composed with the aim of spiking the possibility that either the Quran or the sunna [laws] might conceivably have owed anything to infidel precedent.

NJ Of course, one of the first things you learn as a historian is to interrogate early chronicles for motive using context, whether geopolitical, religious or otherwise. But it is equally dangerous to lean towards the hypersceptic idea that texts cannot be relied upon except to tell us about their writers, meaning the document-free gaps in the past must always consist of near-impregnable darkness.

You don’t go quite that far in your book, but you do apply something of this very sceptical view to early Islamic sources which first appeared in the 200 years after the Prophet’s death as written accounts of oral testimony. You suggest, for example, that hadiths [sayings of Muhammad] targeting the rich were concocted to unsettle the rotten imperial elite. Your argument that “the dry rot of fabrication . . . was endemic throughout the sunna” is much more radical than the traditionalist, more common academic approach, which recognises the importance of testing for fabrication, but values the hadith as a body of secondary sources. I’d disagree that uncovering fabricated elements in these early sources undermines everything that they portray as authentic.

TH I think there’s a particular problem with the sources for early Islam. Some of the sayings attributed to Muhammad must surely be authentic – but even if we could identify them, their value as a source for his life would still not be greatly enhanced as a result.

Context, for the historian, is all – and no Muslim scholar or lawyer who cited the Prophet ever had the slightest interest in establishing what the original context of his sayings might actually have been. To quote him was to take for granted that the advice he had to give was timeless and universal. That Muslims in the heyday of the Caliphate were living under circumstances unimaginable to Muhammad never crossed their minds.

The real problem for the historian is that we lack what, for instance, [the 1st-century Roman-Jewish historian] Josephus gives us for the background to the life of Christ – a control. The consequence is that we can only hope to arrive at a sense of what might have happened in the early years of the Arab conquests by looking at the much later Muslim source material in the light of the late-antique world.

NJ In which case, no explanation of the origins of Islam is ever going to strike the mould for an authentic secular narrative. You rightly point out in your introduction the provisional nature of your own retelling of early Islam: “on a whole range of issues . . . there can only ever be speculation”. While you use Christian and Jewish traces in the Quran to suggest their influence on Muhammad, direct evidence remains elusive.

There’s a wonderful analogy in the book about it being similar to noticing that the eastern and western coasts of the Atlantic Ocean match like a jigsaw puzzle. There seems to be a link, but without clues as to how the two came together, it’s impossible to know for certain how to explain the gap. Historians are just replacing one take on an uncertain past with another.

TH The hypothesis I give in the book as to how and why Islam might have emerged is only that – a hypothesis. Patricia Crone, one of the most brilliant and innovative historians of early Islam, once memorably described the Muslim historical tradition as “a monument to the destruction rather than the preservation of the past”. That being so, it is hardly surprising that there should be such a breathtaking range of opinion, ranging from devout Muslims, who accept the tradition in its entirety, to radical sceptics who doubt that Muhammad so much as existed.

My own take is that the evolution of Islam can only really be made sense of in the light of the civilisations and religions of late antiquity. Partly, that is because it genuinely seems to me the best way to try to understand what might have happened in the 7th century; but I am sure it also reflects a subliminal desire on my part, in love with antiquity as I am, to feel that Islam, like Christianity, was bred of the ancient world.

NJ This debate has, until now, been limited to specialists, for the good reason that it requires a vast amount of study and a good knowledge of Arabic, at least, in order to draw authoritative conclusions from the available sources. Revisionists are few, and those such as Patricia Crone and Michael Cook who argue that Islam was born after the burgeoning of the Caliphate and the Arab conquests do so with the authority of their close understanding of the period, albeit little concrete evidence.

While you obviously draw on the work of such historians and are enthusiastic about the period, is it fair to present a narrative not grounded in direct engagement with the available sources?

TH In writing this book, I am standing on the shoulders of giants – or, to mix metaphors, rushing in where angels fear to tread. My justification is that if a generalist is not prepared to attempt it, then no one will. Perhaps, somewhere, there is a scholar with Latin, Hebrew, Syriac, Arabic and Coptic, doctorates in Talmudic studies, patristics, Christian theology and Quranic studies and an ability to write accessibly for the general public – but if so, he or she is yet to write the book on the subject that I strongly felt merited being written.

Even the greatest historian of the decline and fall of the Roman empire, Edward Gibbon, had to profess his “ignorance of the Oriental tongues, and . . . gratitude to the learned interpreters”. Where I had the advantage, perhaps, was in having a brilliant research assistant, a native Arabic speaker with a specialisation in Syriac, and the incredible generosity of a wide range of scholars.

NJ Locating religious construction in the centuries that followed the death of Muhammad involves saying some particularly challenging things about the Quran and the Prophet himself. For example, you accept that the Quran seems to date from around Muhammad’s time, and certainly recent carbon-dating research suggests an early-7th-century date for indicative Quranic fragments.

When the German Quranic scholar Gerd Puin was allowed to examine the ancient manuscripts recently discovered in Sana’a, Yemen, he found possible evidence of minor changes to verse order and spelling, but uncovered no hint of deliberate fabrication. In the light of all this, proposing that figures such as the 7th-century caliph Abd al-Malik, whom you suggest put the Quran through an “editing process”, and the historian Ibn Hisham constructed a retrospective religion centred on a man named Muhammad, whom they situated in Mecca, seems a little extreme. There are direct mentions of Muhammad in the Quran itself, among dozens of other allusions to his life.

TH The problem for any non-Muslim trying to explain the origins of Islam is what to make of the Quran. It seems to me clearly to derive, in the form we have it, from the lifetime of Muhammad – which makes it, a few other brief and enigmatic documents aside, our only primary source for his career.

The problem is, I cannot possibly accept what Muslims take for granted: that it originates from God. And yet Mecca, so the biographies of the Prophet teach us, was an inveterately pagan city devoid of any large-scale Jewish or Christian presence, situated in the midst of a vast, untenanted desert. How else, then, are we to account for the sudden appearance there of a fully fledged monotheism, complete with references to Abraham, Moses and Jesus, if not as a miracle? You can only answer that question by asking yourself whether Muslims, at some point in the evolution of Islam, might not have situated the origins of the Quran deep in a desert for the same reason that Christians cast the mother of Christ as a virgin. In both cases, what is presumed to be an intrusion of the divine into the dimension of the mortal is being certified as an authentic, bona fide act of God.

NJ I don’t argue that religious practices shouldn’t be understood as firmly within their political and cultural contexts as possible. But religions are necessarily a human phenomenon in their practice, however divine we believe their inspiration and aspiration to be. “Monotheistic revolution” is a misnomer: the evolution of faith didn’t end with the melting pot of Byzantine.

TH I think in the early history of what emerges as rabbinical Judaism, of Christianity and of Islam, you see a near-identical process: the gradual fashioning, out of a great swirl of often inchoate rituals, convictions and scriptures, of a distinct religion that is coherent, in terms of both doctrine and institutions. Watchtowers and barriers go up, the aim being to keep the faithful inside set limits and to keep non-believers out. Histories are then written which make it seem as though the religion has always existed in the form that it now possesses, right from the very beginning – that Moses was a rabbi, that Jesus would have signed up to the Nicaean Creed, that Muhammad was truly the fountainhead of the sunna.

The concrete, initially so soft and malleable, by now has set. This does not mean, of course, that the various religions do not continue to evolve – but they do so within parameters that by now are irrevocably rigid, and exclude contributions from peoples of other faiths. It is in that sense, I would argue, that Jews, Christians and Muslims all today worship different gods.

“In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” by Tom Holland is out now (Little Brown, £25)
Nabeelah Jaffer is a journalist who specialises in Islamic culture and feminism

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

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