The Week in Radio: Sceptical take on cult of William Shakespeare is worth celebrating


It was William Shakespeare's 450th Birthday this week, or would have been, and Radio 3 marked it with a show that pointed out all of his faults – his sloppy writing, his anti-Semitism, his lack of parts for women, and so on.

That isn't totally fair. Radio 3 has had a Bardfest these past few days, starting with Kenneth Branagh and Alex Kingston in a steamy Antony and Cleopatra on Sunday, running up to last night's interview with Janet Suzman, who has played all of the playwright's heroines, from Ophelia to Cleopatra. There has even been a daily essay dedicated to Other Writers from the Midlands, like Alan Sillitoe ("The Bard of Nottingham") and Erasmus Darwin ("The Leonardo da Vinci of the Midlands").

It was down to Mark Ravenhill, in-yer-face playwright of Shopping and Fucking, to offer some of the famous BBC balance and give a sideways, thought-provoking look at Shakespeare in his big anniversary year. Shakespeare: for and Against started like a classic piece of radio Bardolatry – a school hall full of nine-year-olds in Stoke being introduced to his genius, Fiona Shaw and Simon Russell Beale waxing lyrical and Ravenhill asking the ear-catching question, "Hasn't Shakespeare in some way become a replacement for God?" To which Gregory Doran offered the equally startling answer that Shakespeare was, for him, better than God. "He explores every element of the human experience with a kind of compassion that is not always there in the Bible."

Ravenhill's idea of Shakespeare as secular god was a persuasive one. There is a tendency to talk about the playwright in terms of universality and timelessness, to marvel at his omniscience when it comes to human nature and to praise his lack of judgement. To his many worshippers he is above criticism. And like God, he has sold a lot of books. He is also currently shifting pink girls' onesies, with the slogan "Though she be but little, she is fierce" (from A Midsummer Night's Dream), at quite a rate in the RSC gift shop.

Having set Shakespeare up as a deity, Ravenhill set to with some blasphemous swipes. Those nine-year-olds in Stoke weren't seeing The Taming of the Shrew for the first time, they were "being induced, before they're too old to question it, into the cult of Shakespeare". Once he got going, he had no shortage of detractors to call on, from Tolstoy, who famously denounced the playwright's lack of faith to Fiona Shaw saying she left the RSC because there were not enough parts for her. "Simon or Ralph, they're playing these parts every few years. It really is a huge inequality." The academic Ania Loomba was fascinating on the subject of India's relationship with Shakespeare, in particular with The Tempest and its "frightening" jingoistic use in the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony.

It was the playwright Edward Bond who took the bleakest view of the playwright's primacy in culture. "We can't produce Shakespeare. We can't act Shakespeare. We can't stage Shakespeare… All directors are just salesmen now. They're not interested in the human mind, in Shakespeare's problems. They're salesmen and they want to sell the plays."

Bond was likely exaggerating for dramatic purposes but this was a bracing alternative to the usual swooning over iambics, and the most interesting 45 minutes of the week's celebrations. The cult of Shakespeare probably is, as Ravenhill concluded, too dominant, but then I can't think of a single other playwright who might inspire such an interesting bunch of actors, theatre-makers and academics to line up and pick fault for 45 minutes. Here's to another 450 years.