THEATRE / Will of the people?: Shakespeare was an Establishment creep who deserves to be rewritten, says the playwright Howard Brenton. Plus London theatre round-up

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The Independent Culture
Measure for Measure was performed on 26 December 1604 at the Court of King James I. It had probably first been given a showing at the Globe in the autumn of that year, to attract an offer from the Court: six plays were performed at Court every Christmas, and it was financially important for a theatre to get at least one of its plays accepted. In one glorious year for Shakespeare's income, all six plays at Court were by him and his company.

Shakespeare, as his career advanced, pushed his business relentlessly upmarket. That his theatre was a rough 'n' ready, devil-may-care outfit is a 'Merrye England' myth. Money equivalents are tricky, but roughly it cost pounds 2.50 to stand and pounds 20 to pounds 30 to sit down in the Globe: its galleries were almost as outrageously priced as the RSC's stalls at the Barbican Theatre today. When he could afford to pay for the building conversion of the hall of an old monastery north of the river, Shakespeare moved out of the old-fashioned Globe into the indoor Blackfriars Theatre, which became a very posh venue indeed, where no 'groundling' ventured. 'Our Bill' was never, for all our modern fantasising, a 'people's theatre' man. For a third of his career he wore the uniform of 'The King's Men', like a footman whose job was to entertain his master. Shakespeare was, alas, something of an Establishment creep . . . that is, he was a man who could be trusted to have a safe pair of hands when it came to politics dramatised on the stage.

We rightly sense that Shakespeare's plays are what we would call 'conservative', but we do not grasp how brazenly, blazingly political they were in their own day. Today it's usually assumed that a 'political' play will, by definition, be oppositional, attacking someone in authority or a ruling philosophy. But there was no possibility in the 1590s and the 1600s that a play could be in any way oppositional. Thomas Kyd was torn apart on the rack, accused of writing an anti-Government poster about Dutch immigration - and his torturers almost certainly knew he was innocent. Thomas Nashe and Ben Jonson were sentenced to jail for six months for writing The Isle of Dogs, which criticised the Mayor of London for corruption. No copy of the play survives. Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus was ruined by the censor and Marlowe, who flirted with atheism, magic, buggery and Catholicism - an oppositional, 'try anything' writer by nature - ended up knifed in the eye in Deptford before his writing career had truly begun. And there was one sickening moment when Shakespeare could have gone down to 'Little Ease', the racking dungeon in the Marshalsea prison: in 1601 a revival of Richard II was taken to support the rebellious Earl of Essex, and, frighteningly for the author, was quoted at the Earl's trial. We can assume the play left the repertoire sharpish.

The Privy Council kept England - a small, energetic, chaotic country, with the social problems that some Third World countries suffer today - on a very tight rein. Elizabethan England was an authoritarian regime which appeared to be monolithic, but which was actually made up of personal fiefdoms; it was a 'divide and rule' structure with all kinds of corruption, deals, favouritism, and spiteful vendettas taking place out of sight.

A writer, living by his wits, would seek to attach himself to one of the great loose cannons on the state's deck - Northumberland, Leicester, Essex, Lord Strange - for protection as much as for payment. Elizabeth let the great of the land vie for power and agonise about their status 'in her affections', while her omnipresent security network of 'intelligencers' and moles watched them all.

So in that world, yes, a good play was expected to be brazenly, blazingly political - but on the side of the status quo. Measure for Measure is an attack on the Puritans. It's a political dystopia; it imagines the state's enemies coming to power. This was very hot stuff in 1606. James I's reign was dominated by the growth of Puritanism, a movement which in the century to come was to execute a king, give rise to Parliamentary sovereignty, and establish the notion of personal liberty as a democratic right - a concept that Shakespeare would not have understood.

The Puritans were the revolutionaries of their day and Measure for Measure is a blistering, unscrupulous attack upon them. It's also a comedy, with all put to rights at the end: the King-figure restores the old regime, legitimacy and true religion. It must have been music to the King's ear: he got what he paid for.

In one way the modern English theatre is blessed by having the Shakespeare plays as our 'classical theatre' but in another way it is cursed. French playwrights have the corsets of Racine and Corneille strangling their stagecraft - three actors in a triangle intoning about their lives: it even got to the self-taught Jean Genet. German playwrights these days try to pretend there was no Bertolt Brecht. But English writers have a tradition of messy Shakespeare: of 'high' and 'low' writing, scruffy prose and refined verse, organically within one text; of a theatre that's situated next to restaurants, bathhouses, brothels and gardens, not next to churches and town halls (as in 19th- century German towns); and a theatre that is broad in its social perspective, 15 actors being able to describe 'the theatre of the world'.

The curse of Shakespearian drama is that these plays, which in plot are so social, have lost all their political meaning. For Shakespeare was not, of course, merely an Elizabethan and Jacobean propagandist. Like artists under 20th-century authoritarian regimes - Shostakovich is an example - his work has hidden meanings, that lie deep in the work, in codes. Some of the hidden meanings are pointed for those who are in the know, in the way newspapers today make allusions to political scandals - Shakespeare probably was a supporter of 'sweet Robyn', the Earl of Essex - but other things are lost upon us, such as the religious meanings in Measure for Measure.

With their codes lost, their political radioactivity decayed away, the plays are called 'universal' - that is, they are all things to anyone, to the point of meaninglessness. A mass cultural self-hypnotism sets in; audiences, prepared for the hypnotic Shakespearian trance by rituals of paying through the nose, and by the very name of the author, glaze over their boredom and fool themselves that they are seeing something profound.

The plays, which really are shattered, brilliant fragments mixed with dross, which we will never put back together again, are used for a kind of divination. This makes them very safe, very good official theatre for our day, which is poisonous for the growth of new work.

If, then, the Shakespeare plays are ruins, it may be fun to walk away with the stones and construct new buildings. What if there is a Measure for Measure in which Angelo wins, and the Duke fails to reinstate the ancien regime? Angelo's secret police could hold him under house arrest, in an old folk's home . . . Would that not be truer, more real? We could make an alternative to quasi-official, 'hypno' productions of Shakespeare and reconstruct, yes, rewrite the old plays, to see what is in them for us, when we are wide awake.

'Groping for Trouts in a Peculiar River', a new play by Stephen Jameson based on 'Measure for Measure' and presented by Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company, is at BAC, Battersea, London SW11 from 16 June to 18 July. Box office: 071-223 2223

(Photograph omitted)