Shakespeare in disrupted times


“Shakespearean” as an adjective has had an unexpected currency in contemporary political journalism – but there are so many other dimensions to a “Shakespearean” sensibility.

As we are reminded early on in this engaging and animated book, “Shakespearean” as an adjective has had an unexpected currency in journalistic responses to the dramas engulfing the politics of the US. What it seems to denote for the writers who have used it is a sense that the persons of the drama are not the captains of their souls, but are at the mercy of both internal and external forces they do not understand or control. Their own goals and intentions are twisted out of shape by what is unseen and unknown to them; the story as narrated or played out aims to show us, as audience, what those on stage can’t know, so that we learn to interrogate ourselves with rather more fear and trembling.

It is one way of defining the adjective; but Robert McCrum helps us see just how many other dimensions there are to a “Shakespearean” sensibility. For one thing, there is the intoxicating, addictive spiral of self exploration in words, words and more words. Iris Murdoch’s Bradley Pearson in The Black Prince delivers, at one of the most charged moments in that extraordinary book, a torrential tribute to the Shakespeare who creates “a meditation upon the bottomless trickery of consciousness and the redemptive role of words in the lives of those without identity, that is, human beings”.

And there is the not unrelated intoxication of writing in code: how far can you go in dangerous allusion, inviting your audience – an audience that regularly includes the most powerful, suspicious and merciless in the land – to see (without ever quite naming) their own danger, their own fragility and lack of substance? Or trailing a coat of obscured possible meanings that represent all sorts of things that have been denied and refused – Catholicism, sexual ambivalence, the seditious memory of defeated claims to power – in an often fantastically reckless display of what speech can hide as well as show? McCrum rightly begins by positioning Shakespeare alongside his contemporary Christopher Marlowe – a more obviously ambivalent figure in any number of ways. Theirs was an age in which speech and writing were shaped by both exuberance and paranoia, and the wine from such a press is understandably heady.

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Then there is the Shakespeare who hears and reproduces the vernacular in a way never before seriously attempted; who dignifies the language of the street by playing it back to its own speakers, highlighting its musicality, its oddity and creativity. McCrum picks up the idea of Shakespeare as a “demotic outsider” in the literary world of his day. He notes how many commentators in the 17th and 18th century refer to him as in one way or another standing for “nature” over art, sometimes with wary respect, sometimes with a not very well concealed condescension. Milton’s allusion to Shakespeare as “Fancy’s child,/Warbl[ing] his …read more

Source:: New Statesman


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