An inspiration for ever and a day

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One of William Shakespeare's great works opened last night at the Barbican Theatre in London. Julius Caesar is directed by Deborah Warner and features the talents of one of our finest stage actors, Simon Russell Beale, and one of our best film actors, Ralph Fiennes. And there is no shortage of Shakespeare being performed in Britain today: Henry IV is on at the National Theatre; and the Royal Shakespeare Company is staging Twelfth Night in Stratford-upon-Avon. On first inspection, we do not appear to be in danger of forgetting about our greatest playwright.

One of William Shakespeare's great works opened last night at the Barbican Theatre in London. Julius Caesar is directed by Deborah Warner and features the talents of one of our finest stage actors, Simon Russell Beale, and one of our best film actors, Ralph Fiennes. And there is no shortage of Shakespeare being performed in Britain today: Henry IV is on at the National Theatre; and the Royal Shakespeare Company is staging Twelfth Night in Stratford-upon-Avon. On first inspection, we do not appear to be in danger of forgetting about our greatest playwright.

But we should not be complacent. A report for the National Association of Teachers of English suggests watering down the English literature A-level. Such a move would constrict the amount of time pupils spend studying the classic works of Shakespeare. And at GCSE level, students are no longer required to read full plays, but instead study only extracts. Are these indications that the reverence with which we treat "The Bard" is fading?

Let us hope not, because the work of Shakespeare remains vitally important to our national life. The most common complaint made by schoolchildren against studying Shakespeare is that the language is too arcane. But it would be folly to marginalise Shakespeare on these grounds. The truth is, he has done more than any other single figure to fashion the English language. When we talk of "standing on ceremony" or "making a virtue out of necessity" we are speaking a Shakespearean language - and we should recognise this.

Even more relevant is Shakespeare's genius for dramatising the human condition. Who could argue that Julius Caesar - a tale of conspiracy, ambition and the mob - has nothing to say to our own times, especially since we are in the midst of an election campaign? Caesar suspects Cassius because he "has a lean and hungry look; He thinks too much: such men are dangerous." This could describe any number of New Labour rivalries.

Labour were accused of comparing Michael Howard to Shylock, the Jew from The Merchant of Venice, in one of its early campaign posters. But perhaps the next time Michael Howard sets out on one of his anti-immigration speeches he should consider Shylock's words on the senselessness of xenophobia: "If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?" How little has changed. And how skilfully did Shakespeare explore the dilemmas that face humanity in every nation and culture under the sun.

This Elizabethan playwright from rural Warwickshire still has the power to inspire, entertain and teach. And we disregard his work, or write it off as outdated, at our grave peril. For as Shakespeare's great friend and rival Ben Jonson put it: "He was not of an age, but for all time."

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