Wednesday, 1 August 2012

What's so good about Shakespeare?


In English Literature, Shakespeare is first; and the second is a matter of dispute (Milton, Byron, Walter Scott?) but far below.

Indeed, Shakespeare is - in terms of influence and attention - first in the world.

But why?


Obviously it is for the quality of his language, the 'poetry' of his language - its suppleness combined with crispness... yes, but how do people know about this?

Modern high brow purism has obscured the reason: Shakespeare is the most quotable writer. He works better than any other writer when given in digestible chunks.

No doubt, these quotable sections work even better in context, but the point is that they work superbly well even completely out of context.


This was brought home to me by a recent visit to Stratford upon Avon were I saw dozens, nay scores, of quotes from Shakespeare, engraved, carved and posted here and there, out of context; and where I also saw excerpts from the plays on video, and done live by one or two actors.

Some were so effective they literally brought tears to the eyes.

What other writer can do this?

The answer is simple: the answer is none.


In the time when Shakespeare became established as the pre-eminent writer; he was, indeed, presented almost wholly in excerpted form - in anthologies such as William Dodd's Beauties of Shakespeare of 1752 which inspired Herder who inspired Goethe and led to the deification of The Bard (this coming back to England from Germany, where Shakespeare was until then under-rated).

And from the 19th up into the early 20th century, Shakespeare was usually presented in a severely cut and edited form by the travelling Actor-Managers such as Sir Henry Irving and his successors - as more or less a collection of the best quotations and most dramatic scenes.


I suspect that the above are indeed the 'best' way to present Shakespeare the mass of people (including myself); not least because his philosophy of life, in so far as one can be discerned from his high points of poetry and rhetoric, is so bleak and pagan as to be hardly bearable except in brief-ish chunks.

But also because, with very few exceptions (e.g. for me Midsummer Night's Dream and Hamlet), the plays are very patchy indeed in terms of quality and coherence - so little is lost and much is gained by shortening and concentrating.