Irreverent reboot of well woke Will

Is Shakespeare ‘accessible’? The truth is that Shakespeare’s plays combine an unusual accessibility of human situation with an unusual difficulty of language

“Hamlet and the Ghost”, c.1825, by George Cruikshank

Access is one of the unquestionable goods of our time. But is it good that everything should be, or be made to seem, accessible? In particular, is it in the long run helpful if things that are difficult of access should be misrepresented as standing open to casual inquiry? These general questions are raised by this lively and provocative new book on Shakespeare, written by Emma Smith, a professor in the English Faculty at Oxford.

Whether or not he is or should be accessible, it is certainly the case that Shakespeare has never been more available. Editions of the plays proliferate, in both multi-volume and single-volume form. Online resources seem almost limitless. The performance archive expands daily. Film versions and adaptations have multiplied. Nor is this simply a UK phenomenon. I have been living for the past six months in Munich. During that time and within the city limits I could not easily have seen a production of a play by either Schiller or Brecht. But I was able to attend excellent productions of Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet, expertly performed in English before appreciative and apparently—to judge from overheard conversations in the interval—comprehending audiences of German adults and schoolchildren.

The global appetite for Shakespeare is the great acknowledged (but largely unsifted) fact of Shakespearean appreciation. Imagine translating Ben Jonson into Finnish. What would a Finnish audience make of, say, Bartholomew Fair? But it is an attested fact that Shakespeare substantially survives translation. Not without loss, of course. The poetry usually dies. One thinks with a smile and a shudder of the Dutch translation of Hamlet: “Omlet, Omlet, dies is dein Feyder’s spooke.” But the human situations carry over, and grip audiences born into the target language in ways apparently not utterly dissimilar from those in which they have, for centuries, held English audiences. Recall, for instance, Kurosawa’s transpositions of Shakespearean narratives into Japanese film. Try that with Every Man Out of His Humour.

The truth is that Shakespeare’s plays combine an unusual accessibility of human situation with an unusual difficulty of language. Nor is that linguistic difficulty a pure consequence of the passage of time. Look at the “Bad Quarto” of Hamlet and see the nonsense that Shakespeare’s contemporaries were prepared to buy without quibble as    authentic Shakespearean verse. Shakespearean poetry has always been difficult. That is why Shakespeare’s poetry—even the Sonnets—has always seemed more time-bound than his plays. The staged narratives of perennial human connection and interest, present in his dramas, are absent from his poems. A further, and more awkward, thought is that the popularity of Shakespeare’s plays may be connected with the particular kind of difficulty he manifests, namely the disconcerting fashion in which his plays bring together the familiarly human and the linguistically remote.

Emma Smith takes as her starting point that Shakespeare is hedged about with distorting and distancing reverence, and this she is determined to clear away: “His work is revered: quoted, performed, graded, subsidized, parodied . . . Shakespeare is a cultural gatekeeper, politely honoured rather than robustly challenged.” Her own robust challenge has two components. First, there is a determination to avoid the language of the academy. So, for example, Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice is Jessica’s “nogoodnik” lover; in Much Ado About Nothing Don John’s “first attempt to screw Claudio over at the ball fails”; in Fletcher’s riposte to The Taming of the Shrew, The Tamer Tamed, his rewriting of Bianca is “a woke reboot of Shakespeare’s ditsy kid sister”. Some readers will enjoy this very chosen register. Others will see it differently—perhaps, most of all, those whose speech it imitates. And it is worth noting that, when the discussion becomes at all technical, the mandarin language of academe returns in full force, as in this account of what happens at the end of Othello: “Thus the play, and its main character, ends on a fissure, an incompatible religious and ethnic split played out on the impossible identity of its central protagonist, who is destroyed by its unbearable cognitive dissonance.” This, I am told, is not how the young speak in Brixton. The language of the ivory tower is easy to denounce, harder to escape.

Second, there is a contention that Shakespeare is, as Smith puts it, “gappy”, “incomplete, woven of what’s said and what’s unsaid, with holes in between”: “Gappiness is Shakespeare’s dominant and defining characteristic. And ambiguity is the oxygen of these works, making them alive in unpredictable and changing ways.” Often, when in pursuit of this clue to the Shakespearean labyrinth, Smith comes up with some arresting insights. There is much in this book in the way of sharp, fresh, particular observation for even seasoned Shakespearean critics to enjoy.

Yet surely it needs no professor, come from Oxford, to tell us that Shakespeare is ambiguous? The ambiguity of Shakespeare has been a commonplace of Shakespearean criticism since the 18th century. Smith tilts at the received idea of Shakespeare as the poet of a general human nature, but it is worth remembering that the most trenchant exponent of that view—Samuel Johnson—was also a critic acutely alive to the discontinuities (or gaps, if you will) in Shakespeare’s work. There is no necessary incompatibility between a vision of Shakespeare which is alive to the chasms and conflicts in his plays, and a vision of Shakespeare which also recognises that, in a way which none of his contemporaries managed, he seems to have addressed perennial features of the human condition.

It is often assumed—wrongly—that recognising Shakespeare as a poet of general human nature means also subscribing to the view that Shakespeare lays down the law about human nature. But it is perfectly possible to reconcile a Shakespeare who is questioning and sceptical, in the form that Smith admires, with a Shakespeare whose imagination allowed him in some way to escape the temporal restrictions which so firmly held all the other dramatists of the early modern theatre. Indeed, Smith seems to be pointing towards such a figure when she explains that she intends to reveal a playwright “more questioning and ambiguous, more specific to the historical circumstances of his own time, more unexpectedly relevant to ours”.

However, although This is Shakespeare is committed to describing and celebrating a Shakespeare who poses questions rather than supplying answers, in some cases—where the available answers chime with modern liberal preferences, as in her spirited account of A Midsummer Nights Dream—Smith supplants the questioning Shakespeare with a strange changeling, the “right-on” Shakespeare, a celebrant of the unconventional in all its forms. Not always so “gappy” then.


This is Shakespeare
By Emma Smith
Pelican, 368pp, £20