Shakespeare: Still Relevant?

To start our commemoration of the 400th Anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, Cedric Watts considers the playwright’s place in our cultural heritage.

If we ask ‘Is Shakespeare still relevant to us today?’, there is an element of naive arrogance about the question. Given that Shakespeare, at his best, is more articulately intelligent than any of us are, it might be more appropriate to ask ‘Are we still relevant to Shakespeare?’. If we are not, the fault may lie in us, not in him.

In general the ‘relevance’ of a play is generated by the combination of its contents and the receptiveness of the cultural climate. Early in 1945, I queued to see the Laurence Olivier film of Henry V. The audience cheered the British victory over the French and applauded the screen at the end. Shakespeare, even to an eight-year-old, was clearly exciting, prophetic and topical. We had beaten the French at Agincourt long ago; and now, in continental Europe, British troops were once again defeating the French (because the French Vichy army fought for Hitler) in the course of defeating the Nazis.

Consider this, too: between 1681 and 1838, Shakespeare’s King Lear disappeared from the British stage. Audiences (and critics as astute as Samuel Johnson) preferred Nahum Tate’s version, which gave the play a happy ending. Tate’s version was relevant, Shakespeare’s was not: and today we may well regard that as a failing of that cultural period rather than of Shakespeare. Today, we are much more receptive to the violence, cruelty, tempestuous power and bitter-sweet poignancy of Shakespeare’s King Lear.

Again, although Troilus and Cressida were probably performed in Shakespeare’s day, the first British production of which we have documentary proof did not take place until 1907; but since then it has been performed with steadily increasing recognition and success. For centuries, it lacked ‘relevance’: audiences didn’t know what to make of it. Yet, today, it seems remarkably topical in its scepticism about martial glory and chivalrous love; and it is cunningly contemporary in its metaphorical form, as the disorder within the fictional word is reflected in the structural disorder of the play, with its daringly unconventional ending. Cultural changes have liberated its cogency.

Obviously, the bawdry and brutality which alienated past audiences gratify today’s audiences. Titus Andronicus, with its rape, mutilation and cannibal banquet, once seemed unperformable; in recent decades it has been staged repeatedly and filmed, harmonizing with our era’s somewhat decadent enjoyment of the shocking and depraved. (In contrast, when I saw the Peter Brook production at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1955, a number of patrons fainted or had to be helped to leave.)  In a witty linkage, Anthony Hopkins, who played the cannibal, Hannibal Lecter, in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), played Titus, smacking his lips as he presided over the cannibal banquet, in the film of Titus Andronicus (1999) directed by Julie Taymor.

Shakespeare was ‘ahead of his times’ in the sonnets, too. Most of the sonnets express the poet’s love for a beautiful young man. For centuries, this caused embarrassment and dismay to readers. Sodomy was long punishable by death. As late as 1964, W. H. Auden, though a homosexual, deplored the eagerness of the homosexual reader ‘to secure our Top-Bard as the patron saint of the Homintern [i.e. international homosexuality resembling the Soviet-based Comintern]’; in fact, explained Auden, ‘men and women whose sexual tastes are perfectly normal’ can enjoy the sonnets as expressions of love ‘without finding the masculine pronoun an obstacle’. Today, however, the sonnets can be appreciated as a very frank depiction of the emotional varieties of bisexual experience. Quoted in films, novels, songs and other poems, the sonnets have exerted pervasive power. In formulating emotions so memorably, they have helped to focus and even to generate those emotions in readers. The plays, we find, offer not only memorable characters who may change subtly from actor to actor but also verbal epitomes of our emotional states: joy, sorrow, love, wrath, depression, jealousy: somewhere Shakespeare has put them into words that resonate in memory. Consider, for example, Macbeth’s despair on hearing of his wife’s death:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

The words sum up Macbeth’s feelings, but they may voice the feelings of many people who have known depression, severe loss, or disillusion.

Some of Shakespeare’s plays seem of immediate relevance today. One is Troilus and Cressida, for the reasons given. Another is Romeo and Juliet, a much stronger play than we may at first think, and superbly cogent when dealing with love which breaches tradition and convention. It’s still highly topical, whether we are thinking of arranged marriage versus marriage for love, or of love relationships which transgress religious and cultural boundaries. And repeatedly the play asks: ‘Which is truer: the enhancive definition of love which is implicit in the relationship of Romeo and Juliet themselves, or the reductive definition of love which is implicit and explicit in the bawdry of Mercutio, the Nurse, Sampson, Gregory and Peter?’ This debate is still cogent. And consider the diverse ways in which this play has pervaded our culture. The first ‘balcony’ scene has appeared on the British twenty-pound-note, and the lovers have been commemorated in ballets, operas, films, comic parodies (in one of which, Frank Bruno, the heavyweight boxer, played Juliet), and popular songs (as in the Peggy Lee classic, ‘Fever’). Germaine Greer, the eminent feminist, has declared that in this play, Shakespeare influentially opposed the Church’s disparagement of marital love. Indeed, he projected the idea of the monogamous heterosexual couple so luminously … that they irradiate our notions of compatibility and cooperation between spouses to this day.

In Richard II, Richard III, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, Henry V, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare submits the world of politics to a multiple scansion. Henry V, for example, is craftily ambiguous. Part of the time, it says: ‘Here was the greatest political leader that England has known: who would not be stirred by his patriotic rhetoric?’. And part of the time, it says: ‘But who would wish to be Henry? Did he have a legitimate claim to France? And weren’t all his achievements short-lived?’. In those plays deriving from history, Shakespeare lets criterion battle with criterion. In Antony and Cleopatra, for example, Octavia is morally better than Cleopatra, and Octavius is more astute than Antony; but ontologically, that is, in sheer fullness of being, Antony and Cleopatra, for all their flaws, are the victors.

That play reminds us, too, that Shakespeare’s prose and poetry, at their best, offer rich pleasures to linguistic sensualists. They engage us in a subtle and durable kind of oral and aural intercourse. When Enobarbus describes Cleopatra’s arrival by water, we have this:

The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne,

Burnt on the water: the poop was beaten gold;

Purple the sails, and so perfumèd that

The winds were love-sick with them; the oars were silver,

Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made

The water which they beat to follow faster,

As amorous of their strokes…

You’d have to be tone-deaf not to enjoy the language here; it’s delicious to utter, the patterns of alliteration and assonance being so fluently integrated that it’s only when we pause to analyse that we see how densely they are meshed.

Shakespeare’s relevance is aided by editors, translators, directors, actors, musicians, artists, dancers, composers (Verdi, Tchaikovsky, Duke Ellington, Elvis Costello, for instance) and singers (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Ella Fitzgerald, Cleo Laine, Stacey Kent, notably): they vie with each other in ‘making Shakespeare new’: Romeo and Juliet generated Bernstein’s West Side Story, The Comedy of Errors prompted The Boys from Syracuse, and Henry IV haunted My Own Private Idaho. By now, Shakespeare has a seemingly unstoppable cultural momentum. Each play-script is the raw material of a diversity of productions, and each character becomes protean: Hamlet becomes Hamlets, bearing the features of Olivier or Smoktunovksy, Williamson or Mel Gibson, Branagh or  Cumberbatch. The earliest texts of Hamlet differ so greatly from each other that Shakespeare seems to be offering us ‘the Hamlet-stuff to be diversely exploited by actors and directors’.

But don’t be worried if at first some of the material seems alien. To be frank, there are several of Shakespeare’s plays which I dislike. These include the three parts of Henry VI, a jingoistic trilogy in which Joan of Arc is depicted as a witch eager to give her body and soul to devils. Another disaster, in my view, is Henry VIII. With immense hypocrisy, it is sub-titled All Is True, even though the play proves to be a cynical whitewash of the brutal monarch. Another is Timon of Athens, which has a boringly naive plot. But experience has taught me that any of these works may be redeemed by some resourceful director. Indeed, a 1979 BBC production of Henry VIII, directed by Kevin Billington, gained high praise from critics. So did Jane Howell’s 1983 treatment of the Henry VI trilogy for BBC/Time-Life. And a 2012 version of Timon of Athens directed by

Nicholas Hytner, with Simon Russell Beale as Timon, was widely applauded. ‘Hytner

…  hurls Timon into the 21st century and finds it lands there almost perfectly’, said a critic in the Daily Telegraph. ‘A powerful comment on the insulating effect of wealth’, said the Guardian. ‘A lacerating parable for our troubled times’, added the Evening Standard. Generally, commentators found that this production made the problematic play an astute denunciation of today’s materialism.

Therefore, if Shakespeare seems ‘irrelevant’ to us, that may be because we have failed to be sufficiently imaginative in our responsiveness, or sufficiently diligent. Of course, Shakespeare requires some work on our part; for pleasure is often a consequence of toil. To become really good at football, the guitar, ballet or darts, we have to work; but the reward is pleasure.

With Shakespeare, a useful starting place is a good video, for instance, the video of Othello starring Laurence Fishburne. Follow the Wordsworth text at the same time, and notice the changes that the director (Oliver Parker) makes to the Shakespearian script: do the cuts improve or mar it? At the same time, relish the continuing topicality of this study of the tragic consequences of racial prejudice. Remember that Queen Elizabeth I was so worried about the number of black immigrants (‘Negars and Blackamoors’) in England that she hired a merchant, Caspar van Zeuden, to take them away in ships. Then ask yourself why Iago, who is Italian, has a Spanish name instead of being called Giacomo. (The most famous Iago is Santiago Matamoros: Saint James the Moor-Slayer, as cunning Shakespeare must have known.)

By some obvious tests, Shakespeare has never been so ‘relevant’ as he is today. His plays are performed around the world, in numerous languages. They are studied at schools and universities internationally. Tourists flock to Stratford-upon-Avon, to the Globe Theatre in Southwark, and even to ‘Juliet’s balcony’ in Verona. His influence seems to be ubiquitous: when I served in the Royal Navy, I found that the Naval Rating’s Handbook quoted with approval Polonius’s advice, ‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be’. We quote him without recognising the fact: ‘mum’s the word’, ‘with bated breath’, ‘dead as a doornail’, for instance. Shakespeare prospered greatly in his lifetime, and today ‘Shakespeare’ is a multi-million-pound industry. If you wish to buy an edition of Hamlet in England today, you have an abundance of choice: there are editions by the Royal Shakespeare Company, Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, the Wordsworth Classics Shakespeare Series, and umpteen other firms.

In Julius Caesar, Cassius says:

             How many ages hence

            Shall this our lofty scene be acted over,

            In states unborn and accents yet unknown?

His question has become a prophecy which history has amply fulfilled. In the sonnets, Shakespeare declares:

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments

Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme.

Originally, that sounded like an arrogant boast. As the centuries have passed, the boast has turned into a superb statement of fact.

When the critics and commentators have completed their explanatory work, we are left with the stubbornly simple fact that Shakespeare was, in the main, more articulately intelligent, sensitive and imaginative than the vast majority of people. A civilisation in which Shakespeare was not relevant would be a contradiction in terms: the popularity of Shakespeare is a gauge of the health of a civilisation.

Cedric Watts, M.A., PhD, Emeritus Professor of English, University of Sussex is the editor of Wordsworth’s acclaimed Shakespeare series.