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Shakespeare in disrupted times

“Shakespearean” as an adjective has had an unexpected currency in contemporary political journalism – but there are so many other dimensions to a “Shakespearean” sensibility.

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As we are reminded early on in this engaging and animated book, “Shakespearean” as an adjective has had an unexpected currency in journalistic responses to the dramas engulfing the politics of the US. What it seems to denote for the writers who have used it is a sense that the persons of the drama are not the captains of their souls, but are at the mercy of both internal and external forces they do not understand or control. Their own goals and intentions are twisted out of shape by what is unseen and unknown to them; the story as narrated or played out aims to show us, as audience, what those on stage can’t know, so that we learn to interrogate ourselves with rather more fear and trembling.

It is one way of defining the adjective; but Robert McCrum helps us see just how many other dimensions there are to a “Shakespearean” sensibility. For one thing, there is the intoxicating, addictive spiral of self exploration in words, words and more words. Iris Murdoch’s Bradley Pearson in The Black Prince delivers, at one of the most charged moments in that extraordinary book, a torrential tribute to the Shakespeare who creates “a meditation upon the bottomless trickery of consciousness and the redemptive role of words in the lives of those without identity, that is, human beings”.

And there is the not unrelated intoxication of writing in code: how far can you go in dangerous allusion, inviting your audience – an audience that regularly includes the most powerful, suspicious and merciless in the land – to see (without ever quite naming) their own danger, their own fragility and lack of substance? Or trailing a coat of obscured possible meanings that represent all sorts of things that have been denied and refused – Catholicism, sexual ambivalence, the seditious memory of defeated claims to power – in an often fantastically reckless display of what speech can hide as well as show? McCrum rightly begins by positioning Shakespeare alongside his contemporary Christopher Marlowe – a more obviously ambivalent figure in any number of ways. Theirs was an age in which speech and writing were shaped by both exuberance and paranoia, and the wine from such a press is understandably heady.

Then there is the Shakespeare who hears and reproduces the vernacular in a way never before seriously attempted; who dignifies the language of the street by playing it back to its own speakers, highlighting its musicality, its oddity and creativity. McCrum picks up the idea of Shakespeare as a “demotic outsider” in the literary world of his day. He notes how many commentators in the 17th and 18th century refer to him as in one way or another standing for “nature” over art, sometimes with wary respect, sometimes with a not very well concealed condescension. Milton’s allusion to Shakespeare as “Fancy’s child,/Warbl[ing] his native wood-notes wild” prompted GK Chesterton to observe that “native wood-notes” was perhaps not quite the obvious designation for “Kill Claudio” – or “Light thickens”, or “I have drunk, and seen the spider”, or “Demand me nothing: what you know, you know”.

Like the rather grudging recognition of Shakespeare as reproducing the real “manners” of life (Dr Johnson’s judgement), all this talk of “nature” shows a persistent discomfort about his brand of poetic economy – an approach that seems to sideline the labours of deliberate literary artifice. And embedded in that is a reluctance to think of Shakespeare’s intense listening as an even more demanding exercise of art, the art of listening to one’s own echoes and half-conscious allusions, as well as to the whole linguistic ambience; listening to language making jokes in its sleep, to quote another of Bradley Pearson’s phrases. Easier to ascribe Shakespeare’s frequent emotional nakedness and raw strangeness to “nature” than to accept the need to rethink “art” itself.

McCrum makes good use of Philip Davis’s recent work on the measurable neurological impact of some of Shakespeare’s verbal violences – adjectives or nouns turned into verbs (“He childed as I father’d”), pronouns into nouns (“the cruellest she alive”), and the like. The richness of Shakespeare’s vocabulary is not simply a matter of lexical abundance. It is to do with this kind of repeated low-voltage shock, which gives the hearer the feeling of language itself twisting like Proteus in the hands, reshaping itself, and fusing our attention on to its movements. We remember him not only for compelling musicality and rhythmical grandeur (of the kind Marlowe excels in) or even vivid metaphor, but also for the jolting shifts of grammar and register, the sudden swerve into dense monosyllables. In Shakespeare, we seem to hear words pushing restlessly through the soil of thinking.

Not everyone admires: McCrum mentions briefly some of the more Olympian dissidents – Tolstoy, Lawrence, Shaw. Although there is no formula for identifying exactly what generates such scepticism, it is noticeable that there is a definite bias in this group towards what we might call a centripetal mentality. Writers who desperately want to communicate a coherent message may well find Shakespeare frustrating, or worse, find a writer who will repeatedly pause to let the language itself lead or push, even on the edge of dramatic climax (or as a way of intensifying such a climax).

It is why, in seeking to ascertain what he says to a radically different culture, we can’t rely on outlining his “ideas” in any sort of disjunction from text and performance. We have to watch and listen to what he does, or what he lets happen, especially in what at first appears to be the beautifully controlled context of his non-dramatic poetry. There are some obvious answers to the question, “What are the Sonnets about?” but they are not necessarily the most interesting things to be said. So McCrum does not analyse Shakespeare’s supposed theories or trace any arguments through the plays; he offers a loose biographical framework and guides us rather like someone walking through a gallery – pointing here, hurrying past there because time’s getting on, stopping to turn and elucidate or invite a response.

And there is an autobiographical thread here as well, both the endearing recollections of a group of McCrum’s friends who have been enjoying the plays together for decades, and the delicately mentioned subtext of the author’s own near-fatal ill-health (about which he has written movingly elsewhere) and its significance as a context for reading and hearing Shakespeare. These two framing memories tell us simply that Shakespeare lasts, and that he is there to hand in extreme situations. And to be assured of that is to know a lot about him.

In the light of all this, McCrum says, it becomes clear one of the things that matters about the plays is what they do and say about plays – about deliberate pretence, the need for, and the risks of, theatre itself. “Playing”, letting words and conversations run on and find their level and their relationships, speaking without being committed to what’s said but rather trying out a role or a position – all this is part of how humans learn and use language. We discover through “play”, in the widest sense, what fits, what works, what lasts, where we can and can’t stand.

And this means that some element of theatre is built into both our self-construction and the self-understanding of human societies. We dress up, literally or metaphorically, and discover what new things can be seen or heard when we do so. Religious ritual is, in this sense, an example of theatrical “play”, offering roles to act out that connect us with patterns and energies that push beyond the obvious and the immediately intelligible. And it proves durable to the extent that those roles provide a perspective which uncovers more than our routine perceptions readily accommodate – that gives us more to think with.

The problems start with the subtle shift from theatre to spectacle. If theatre and ritual show us ways of seeing what we wouldn’t ordinarily see, spectacle simply exalts and amplifies what we can already see or know; it is wrecked by irony. Theatre – comic or tragic – makes us see our routine world as fragile and changeable, and also as endlessly open to being analysed and rediscovered in strange places and forms. Spectacle, meanwhile, reassures with images of “greatness”. And in the public/political sphere (as in the sphere of religion, if the truth be told), it is often hard to tease out theatre and spectacle.

Arguably, the opening ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympics offered something of a theatrical experience: the possibility of occupying an imagined story that was both rooted in and subversive of the ordinary. But it is desperately easy to slip into the “reinforcing” mode of spectacle.

In a society in which “negative capability” – the capacity not to be rushed into ambitiously dogmatic solutions – isn’t all that popular, the understanding of theatre withers rapidly. We know already where to stand, and what we need is assurance, the splendour of our righteous identity held up before us in lavishly decorated forms of word or picture.

And we are in increasing danger of reducing public language to spectacle. We are urged to judge performance in terms of crowd-pleasing; we don’t want to see our leaders engaged in reflection, or inviting us to look behind and around issues. Fascism is one of the most extreme forms of the triumph of spectacle.

In such a context, theatre is all the more vital. To treat the problems theatres are facing because of lockdown as the travails of something called the “entertainment industry” is to miss the whole point. A vital theatrical culture is a necessary aspect of everyone’s education in political intelligence, helping us to see spectacle for what it is, and to keep our eyes open for what is not on the surface of things, to hear the “voices off”, the allusions, connections and resonances of the language we share, and so not to rest content with public speech and behaviour that simply postures for our applause.

Again and again, Shakespeare writes not only dramas, but dramas about dramas. He shows us in the simplest ways how plays bring things to light – “the Mousetrap” in Hamlet, the carnivalesque humour of amateur performance in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Love’s Labour’s Lost, the theatrical framing of The Taming of the Shrew. He weaves whole plays around disguise and misrecognition. He shows us figures of power and numinous authority – Richard II, Henry V, Lear – encountering the moral and spiritual dangers of royal spectacle.

One of my few moments of disagreement with McCrum is when he describes the late plays as inviting the judgement that they are “dramatised poems” more than dramas. It’s clear what he means; but in fact these are plays that outrageously display their theatricality, making fewer and fewer concessions to anything you could call realism. The fantastic and the arbitrary are flaunted, so that we can’t forget for a moment that this is, indeed, playing – and its force is to make us more acquainted with the startling possibilities that the world conceals, possibilities of restoration and forgiveness, as well as depths of self-doubt and self-loathing.

McCrum wonders if the ending of The Tempest is “nihilistic”, but from another point of view it is one of Shakespeare’s most audacious transpositions. Prospero’s final soliloquy asks us, the audience, to put our hands together not in applause, but in prayer for the imagined figure before us, so as to deliver him from the risks of his own “spectacular” power and return him to common humanity.

McCrum’s Shakespeare for “times of disruption” is a welcome participant in the contemporary conversation about the insanities that are taking over “democratic” politics. He obliges us to listen to ourselves at a different depth and so to listen differently to one another. He shows us how power tries to armour itself against doubt by the pseudo-theatre of spectacle. He tells us, more plainly than any other dramatist, why theatre matters, and why a society that shrugs its shoulders at the precariousness of the theatrical arts is, indeed, making a “shameful conquest” of itself. 

Shakespearean: On Life & Language in Times of Disruption
Robert McCrum
Picador, 400pp, £14.99

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article appears in the 18 September 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Planet Covid