Philip Hensher: The enduring relevance of Shakespeare

He has not only observed how we behave in terrible circumstances; he has taught us how to behave
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The Independent Online

All the same, the Royal Shakespeare Company, which has just announced that its 2006-7 season in Stratford will include performances not just of every play, but of the narrative poems and the Sonnets, is confident that Shakespeare's appeal and, indeed, relevance, are not diminishing and may even be growing.

I think they're right; and a horrible, incidental proof of this came last week, in the aftermath of the London bombs. A survivor, Liza Pulman, has written an account of waiting in the dark and smoke, not knowing whether they were all waiting for death or for rescuers. At one point a man, covered in soot, remarked that "I'm a carpenter; suppose it doesn't matter if I'm a bit dirty." As they were being led out, another man took the opportunity to say, "At last - a seat."

These jokes, forgivably weak as they are, did make you think "God, how English." But what one ought to be thinking, probably, was "How Shakespearean." They reminded you of those moments in Shakespeare when a joke intrudes on a tragic episode. The dying Mercutio says of his fatal wound that "'tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church door, but 'tis enough." The porter in Macbeth turns up at the most harrowing moment with a series of awful dirty jokes.

You can go on, almost endlessly. The heartbreaking account of Falstaff's death in Henry V contains a really smutty joke; Cleopatra's noble suicide is delayed by one of the most infuriating of Shakespeare's clowns; even the reconciliation scene in The Winter's Tale courts disaster when Leontes comments on how wrinkled Hermione's statue looks.

All these things, to Shakespeare's classically-minded contemporaries like Ben Jonson, later neoclassical critics, and, often, European playwrights, looked not just deplorable lapses in taste, but often quite incomprehensible. There are no jokes in a Racine tragedy; only once, I believe, does anyone sit down, so careful is the maintenance of tone.

But it is Shakespeare we are constantly reminded of by real life. Wherever you looked, in the aftermath of the London bombs, you saw a moment which Shakespeare had seen in advance. The wall splattered with blood; the terrible irony of the destroyed bus, still bearing a fragment of an advert for a silly film reading "Outright terror: bold and brilliant." Above all, the dignified figure of Marie Fatayi-Williams and her public threnody for her dead son; a scene out of Coriolanus.

In a way, it sounds offensive to compare such terrible scenes from real life to plays written, in the end, to entertain. Mrs Fatayi-Williams can't, like an actress, clean off her make-up, change into her everyday clothes, and go home peaceably. None of it was staged for our entertainment, and we mustn't look at it, in any way, as a spectacle.

But Shakespeare has not only observed how we behave in terrible circumstances; he has, in many ways, taught us how to behave. The strange fact is that societies and individuals, in extremis, do take their behaviour from the lessons of drama. In 19th-century Paris, royal dukes were assassinated at the theatre, the news spreading through the audience while the drama continued, exactly as in Victor Hugo; the victims genuinely did cry out "I am slain." There is no question of insincerity in any of this, just as there is not in the cases of the Londoners who started making jokes, like Mercutio, while in terror for their lives. It is just the form which emotion takes in local circumstances.

I don't think I'll be going to every single one of the RSC's productions in 2006-7. Indeed, there are probably a dozen plays there which I'd be very happy never to see again in my life. You probably feel the same way, though Shakespeare's greatness is that hardly anyone can agree to like, or dislike the same things - I love The Winter's Tale, Much Ado and Venus and Adonis, and can't stand what are probably your favourites, The Tempest, Love's Labours Lost and Measure for Measure.

Anyone, however, who does go to see even half a dozen plays will conclude that we've been lucky, as a nation, to be taught how to feel and behave by so generous a playwright. We've always known, thanks to Shakespeare, that when the worst happens, there will be some people laughing in the next room; that life doesn't always behave in the best of taste.

Most of all, I guess, we've understood that there is usually something to be said for the other point of view. When two utterly incompatible worlds collide in Shakespeare, we may come to a conclusion, but rarely without a moment's doubt; we understand why Falstaff bursts in on King Hal's coronation, and why he is dismissed so brutally; why Beatrice says "Kill Claudio"; why Iago so loathes Othello; even poor Malvolio's delusions. There is, as everyone has always said, a limitless sympathy there which does not preclude judgement.

Shakespeare both expresses and creates a national trait; the respect for other ways of feeling and thinking, of a delight in the variety to be found in the world. As a national trait, that is harder to defend than an obstinate insistence on a set of defined characteristics. But it is also a great deal stronger.

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