sábado, junho 02, 2018

The Western Canon: "Living with Shakespeare - Essays by Writers, Actors, and Directors" by Susannah Carson (editor)




My long time fascination with Shakespeare started a long time ago when I was attending the British Council. I won’t dwell on it again.

In this “Living with Shakespeare” I didn’t get much on Hamlet, but I kept thinking about Hamlet's five soliloquies; the humour and poignancy of Kent's words in King Lear; the horror of what happens to Gloucester and the heart-rending ending of the same play. The mixed emotions of the finale to Macbeth. Mark Antony's speeches in Julius Caesar. Iago's words in Othello. Shakespeare gave the world a literary water-fountain around which to gather when engaging with the great issues of each passing generation. His heroes and villains, his comedies and his tragedies make up an unerringly eloquent compendium of human frailties/motives as the world changes - and yet nothing changes. And I've hardly scratched the surface of how Shakespeare's words have the power to move and shock and create laughter like no one else has been able to before or since. The naysayers should take the time to experience a play performed live or, at the very least, watch a film version. It will hopefully change their minds. And he is not just for 'middle class snobs'! Shakespeare's for everybody. After having finished this book, I'm reminded of Harold Bloom's comments about Marlowe in 'The Western Canon', when he says that Marlowe the man 'can be meditated upon endlessly, as the plays not'; sometimes the writer's life - especially with Marlowe - can be even more interesting than their work. If the story of Shakespeare's life was that good he would have written a play about himself... maybe that is what he did with "The Tempest". I remember watching a video of the play "Cheapside" at The British Council in the 80s, wherein David Allen's brilliant play about Richard Greene has Shakespeare darting on occasionally as a sharp-eyed (upstart?) magpie always on the lookout for gleaming lines and plots to lift. In the closing scene he lets himself into the dead Greene's room and rummages surreptitiously through the half-finished manuscripts. "'Story for a Snowy Night'" he muses to himself. "Mmm.... A Winter's Tale?'" It's such a cheeky cameo - lovely stuff.

Shakespeare remains relevant because his understanding of universals was profound, and his language remains piercingly fresh. He was a genius living at a time when the English language was still wonderfully malleable. It was an age in which the known world was expanding with the discovery of the Americas, when England was a centre of growing prosperity and technological advance - and the headiness of living in a country in such flux is palpable in the texts too. That Shakespeare was a brilliant literary innovator just isn't in doubt; you have only to read Spenser, Marlowe and Jonson to see it. They are all stupendous in different ways (I recently reread Jonson's “The Alchemist” and was astonished all over again), but the acuity of Shakespeare's phrases, the penetrating psychological insights in Macbeth, Lear and Hamlet, the sheer beauty and strangeness of the language and the thinking set him apart. To say Shakespeare remains an icon for English-speaking people all over the world contradicts the well-known idea that Shakespeare is a 'universal soul'. All of my friends whose first language is not English regard Shakespeare as a great. The poet transcends not only time but culture and language.  I've always wondered how it can be possible to translate Shakespeare into modern foreign languages, especially languages which are linguistically remote from English like the Portuguese Language, yet people do it, amazingly. As Ian Dury once wrote - 'There ain't half been some clever bastards'.

Politicians have done much to undermine a common set of values among us human beings. Thatcher's "there is no such thing as society" comes to mind. In the Bard we find touchstones that are timeless and inform our basic values - simply as people. In many situations the words Macbeth, Brutus, Cordelia, Shylock or Malvolio are all that is needed to set the tone or the scene. Good point about politicians. People get suckered by them, child-like, time after time. I'm sure Shakespeare had something to say about gullibility. Must check it out when Benfica’s team is not on...

NB: We should not overlook Shakespeare's influence on the development of German drama via the translations of Gottfried Herder. But Herder to Goethe in a letter: "Shakespeare hat Euch ganz verdorben"! The same happened to some Portuguese people...

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