You already know about Shakespeare, right? Important but irrelevant, worthy but not much fun, exams at school, or a numb bum in a very long evening at the theatre. I want to persuade you to think again. Lots of what we trot out about Shakespeare and iambic pentameter and the divine right of kings and ‘Merrie England’ and his enormous vocabulary blah blah blah is just not true, and just not important. Instead, prepare to discover a new Shakespeare who is associated with questions, not answers.
These works interrogate contemporary problems – of the self, of politics, of celebrity – and their characteristic mode of questioning means that, in 2019, Shakespeare is a verb rather than a noun. ‘to Shakespeare’ might be defined as the activity of posing questions, unsettling certainties, challenging orthodoxies, opening out endings. I wanted to write a book about Shakespeare for grown-ups who don’t want textbook or schoolroom platitudes. Not a biography (there’s nothing more to say about the facts of Shakespeare’s own life, and vitality is a property of the works, not their long- dead author); not an exam crib (Shakespeare’s works ask, rather than answer, questions, making them wonderfully unsuited to the exam system); not a Shakespeare-made-simple (Shakespeare is complex, like living, not technically and crackably difficult, like crosswords or changing the time on the cooker).
My argument is that Shakespeare’s works hold our attention because they are fundamentally incomplete and unstable
I trace the Victorian whitewashing of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a play about swinging, bestiality, and S&M...
Each chapter takes a different approach. On Romeo and Juliet, for instance, I try to work out why this most famous of plays might begin with a spoiler, telling us in the opening moments exactly what will happen to the star-crossed lovers of the title. This takes me through ideas about tragedy and inevitability, about the play’s depiction of youth, and about haste, preemptive action, and the sexual implications of coming too soon, via Leonardo DiCaprio and my love of those elaborate domino worlds you can set toppling with the flick of a finger. I trace the Victorian whitewashing of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a play about swinging, bestiality, and S&M, as a play about fairies most suitable for children, to remind us about the specific, sometimes dark, adult pleasures of the plays. I wonder why Don John, the baddy in Much Ado About Nothing, is quite so wooden compared with brilliant improvisatory villains elsewhere in Shakespeare’s plays, and think about toxic male bonding as the unexpected infrastructure of this much-loved romcom. Investigating the self-consciousness of Julius Caesar about how its events will be narrated in the future, I compare it with postmodern narrative questioning such as Jean Baudrillard’s infamous question about whether the Gulf War ever actually happened. I see The Comedy of Errors’ hectic plot and under-developed characters in the light of the dehumanizing production-line of Charlie Chaplin’s film Modern Times. I ask what the actor playing the Ghost of Hamlet’s father is doing for the three hours he is not in the play, and how that might help us understand his role, and I follow a long critical history of trying to find King Lear’s unremitting misery somehow uplifting. Throughout, I want to emphasise multiple interpretations rather than anything like a right answer. These are capacious texts that demand our participation, not codes to be correctly solved.
And although I try to avoid the great narcissism of seeing Shakespeare as a reflection of our own times, there is one important thing these gappy plays can offer our own period. The Elizabethan theatre was the happy beneficiary of a particular pedagogic technique employed in sixteenth century classrooms. In Latin it was called ‘in utramque partem’, and it meant arguing a controversial issue or a difficult scenario from multiple perspectives. What mattered less was what you might believe, but rather, how you might make different viewpoints equally compelling and authentic. It’s a great skill for a playwright, but in an increasingly polarized world, perhaps it could usefully be mainstreamed? In the past, critics, politicians, and advertisers have often tried to coopt Shakespeare for one particular side of an issue: what might be most valuable in 2019 is the difficulty of reducing the plays to a coherent viewpoint. Their irreducible diversity is just what we need.