It’s the 450th anniversary of his birth, but his popularity continues unabated
Incredible as this might seem today, William Shakespeare was not considered infallible in 18th century England. There were attempts to rewrite Shakespeare, purging him not only of his flaws but also of his strengths. Even in the late 19th century, Bernard Shaw famously wrote, “with the single exception of Homer, there is no eminent writer, not even Sir Walter Scott, whom I despise so entirely as I despise Shakespeare.”
But it would be a fallacy to attribute Shakespeare’s attraction to us, his almost infallible stature today, simply to colonial (and postcolonial) education or institutionalisation. There is something in Shakespeare that speaks across time and space. What is this?
It cannot be his stories, which were often purloined from other sources. It cannot be the consistency of his engagement with his narratives for isn’t Shakespeare the playwright who, among other things, gets the Romans to play football? His great poetry, surely, and yet there are lines in Shakespeare that make me cringe. He is a great poet at his best, but he is not a great poet at his worst. Shakespeare-fanatics usually get out of this dilemma by attributing all the weakness in Shakespeare to other sources, and this is just another example of the way in which Shakespeare has become religion for some. He is just as much above criticism for a breed of literary critic as the Holy Quran is for a breed of Muslim.
Do not misunderstand me. I am a great admirer of Shakespeare — at his best. This means the Shakespeare of plays like King Lear, Othello and The Tempest; the Shakespeare of the sonnets. But I remain unconvinced by the stock reasons trotted out to explain Shakespeare at his best — or even to explain how he could be at his best so often when he appears to have cared very little for literary acclaim and was mostly busy trying to make a name and fortune by writing for an audience.
Well, that is one of the two main reasons for Shakespeare’s greatness, the smaller one: he worked with the tensions of creativity and compulsion. In his best plays — because his sonnets were a more elitist and private matter — he bent poetry and creativity to generic and market considerations, and vice versa. He did not set himself up as a literary writer or a pulp author would today: both, in different ways, become captives of generic and social compulsions. Shakespeare appears to have risen above them. No, let me correct myself: he grappled creatively with them. This is partly what explains his ability to make something distinctive of stories that he stole from others, as well as write those lines that transcend the context of his times.
That takes us to the larger of the two reasons that, to my mind, explain and justify the acclaimed survival of Shakespeare. It is not just that he wrote great poetry at his best; he wrote poetry that opened up spaces of understanding in his time and continues to do so today. This he did, again, by working with contradictions and conflicts in literature as well as life. Surely the fact that he came from a persecuted Roman Catholic family had a role to play in his ability to perceive the anger of Shylock or Caliban? The Hollywood notion of Shakespeare as a gallivanting gallant is a joke; everything we know about him indicates that he was not just a social climber but a man in desperate need of social and economic stability.
But this need would not have made him a good writer. It was his ability to resolve the contradictions of this need — even to write for the obvious majority from the perspective of a hidden minority — in a creative manner that thrust greatness on him. Was Shakespeare trying to get his audience to sympathise with Shylock, the Jew subjected to racist abuse, when he had Shylock exclaim ‘Does not a Jew bleed?’ You cannot be certain of that; many in his audience would have believed that Jews did not bleed in the same way as Christians. But, perhaps playing on this prejudice, Shakespeare nevertheless left space for the humanity of Shylock — which we can see better today, following our greater awareness of anti-Semitism.
Or take these lines from King Lear: “Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,/That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,/How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,/Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you/From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en/Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;/Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,/That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,/And show the heavens more just.”
We might hear a ‘socialist’ outcry in this, but Shakespeare’s audience might just have heard proof of King Lear’s madness. And yet, yes, Lear has gone mad, and yes, he says something that is just as relevant today — and probably more liable to be understood by us than by many in Shakespeare’s audience. No wonder, we still read the Bard.