If a student were to ask me why people, the world over, read and put on performances of Shakespeare’s plays, I would basically say the following:
A difficult achievement is universally recognizable. Shakespeare has done something, aesthetically and imaginatively, very far from entropy. You can see that he did not write as a monkey at a typewriter (that is, dashing off random letters across a page). People don’t read many writers the world over, only the best, and Shakespeare is one of those to have done something quite noticeably well. It is Shakespeare’s shocking distance from entropy that people are drawn to. Academics can get lost in his plays; lay audiences can delight in them. Shakespeare’s plays amount to the creation of a world.
But this explanation would be, by Emer O’ Toole’s lights as expressed in today’s Guardian, hopelessly reactionary and wrong-headed. The real reason people read Shakespeare is colonialism.
Here she is saying it:
Shakespeare is full of classism, sexism, racism and defunct social mores. The Taming of the Shrew (aka The Shaming of the Vagina-Bearer) is about as universally relevant as the chastity belt. I’m sick of directors tying themselves up in conceptual knots, trying to frame poor Katherina as some kind of feminist heroine. The Merchant of Venice (Or The Evil Jew) is about as universal as the Nuremberg laws. […]
So where has the idea that Shakespeare is “universal” come from? Why do people the world over study and perform Shakespeare? Colonialism. That’s where, and that’s why. Shakespeare was a powerful tool of empire, transported to foreign climes along with the doctrine of European cultural superiority. Taught in schools and performed under the proscenium arches built where the British conquered, universal Shakespeare was both a beacon of the greatness of European civilisation and a gateway into that greatness – to know the bard was to be civilised.
Well, yes. Everything she says here is true. Who can deny it? Shakespeare traveled with colonialism (as did Christopher Marlow). And Shakespeare can be sexist, racist, classist, and antisemitic.
But people don’t, the world over, hold festivals for the performing of Marlow, do they? Something more is going on. Shakespeare’s staying power belongs to Shakespeare himself (because he achieved things with language, literary ambiguity, complication, and character creation that are quite obviously remarkable).
The same can also be said of the ancient Greek dramatists (Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus, Aristophanes). The Greeks too travel well. You can probably find, for example, somewhere in Japan, this very week, a production of a Greek play.
Is this because of colonialism as well?
Imagine if the plays of Shakespeare had been written, four hundred years ago, by an Indian woman who gleaned her knowledge of Europe from books (as Shakespeare did for the plays he set in Italy, which he never actually visited)? Would Emer O’Toole not be celebrating her intellectual and imaginative triumph? And does Emer O’Toole seriously believe that such an Indian playwright would not have been discovered and globally celebrated in the 21st century?
The Bhagavad Gita has long been recognized as a great piece of Indian literature that travels well. Perhaps Emer O’Toole attributes its global reception to colonialism as well.
What Emer O’Toole represents is what the retired Yale critic, Harold Bloom, rightly calls “the school of resentment,” which he defines as consisting of those who bring leftist political commitments, accompanied by a general indifference to aesthetic judgments, to works of literature and art. Hence Emer O’Toole’s explanation for why she has been attending the World Shakespeare Festival in Britain:
Palestinian collective Ashtar made a powerful political statement about displacement through its stripped-down Richard II. The festival has offered UK audiences their first chance to watch the National Theatre of China, and this week sees India’s Arpana theatre perform in Britain for the first time with an all singing all dancing Gujarati All’s Well That Ends Well. Woop!
We have reached the point where what’s interesting about Shakespeare isn’t Shakespeare at all – it’s the themes and innovations that theatre artists bring to the texts.
What’s interesting about Shakespeare isn’t Shakespeare at all? Really?
Well, if Emer O’Toole has reached such a point of boredom with Shakespeare that she prefers to focus on directors and song and dance interpretations of the plays (or not attend Shakespeare plays at all), fine. But that’s not why Shakespeare remains vital to so many people the world over. Shakespeare remains vital because he is the exemplary writer in the genre of drama. He is a treasure that belongs to humanity, and we may not see a writer of his power again for a millennium or more (or ever). It’s not politically reactionary to say so.
Here’s Blondie channeling Hamlet:
And here are the lyrics: