Ah, blog number six! It’s mostly about writing, just like the other ones, and this time is about my favourite writer: the Bard himself, William Shakespeare.It grieves me to admit it, but Shakespeare is not for everyone, even if, as Jonson said in his piece in the first folio, he is for all time. There are people I have tried really hard to interest in Shakespeare – talked to them, taken them to plays, given them authoritative and easy-read editions, done everything I can think of except pass them a Classics Illustrated, and they just don’t care. Maybe it’s me.
To me, Shakespeare is the greatest writer ever, in any language and in any genre – fiction, drama, poetry, non-fiction…that is, even in the types of literature he never tried, he outshone those who did and do. “Greatness” is a funny word, and by it I mean (in writing) that the work will be just as Jonson said, for all time; so far, that has been true of Shakespeare. Successive generations have discovered and rediscovered him, and I don’t see any reasons why future ones shouldn’t.
Being lucky and writing in English, a language of incredible adaptability that has now become the er lingua franca of the world, can’t have hurt the Bard. And it is also true that at the time he was writing, the language was changing fast, incorporating an explosion of new words that were appearing to describe new things and places that the rising British Empire was meeting and greeting. But there was more to Shakespeare than being in the right place at the right time; others were also. Some of them were very gifted, and we remember them: Marlowe, Donne, Chapman, Beaumont and Fletcher, Webster, Tourneur, and others. But even in his own time, Shakespeare stood out. Jonson was not alone in seeing this factor in his talent. He was better than the others simply because he was better. Ha! A genius.
When I read Shakespeare, I am aware that I am in the presence of this genius, even when it lets its bearer down. Two Gentlemen of Verona, for example, is a nasty, misogynist play, whose anti-woman attitudes generations have tried to explain away. The Merchant of Venice, despite its deeply moving portrayal of Shylock, is nonetheless, as the Arden edition I own makes plain, anti-Semitic. That it is not so anti-Semitic as Marlowe’s Jew of Malta is beside the point.
The point is that Shakespeare’s genius rose even above his own limitations, so that Shylock remains a great creation despite the Jew-baiting. Not all the plays are perfect in other ways – structurally, thematically, historically…it doesn’t matter: the deep penetration into the reality of the human condition remains, and re-reading and re-seeing the work can bring new insights, fresh understanding.
What with all that you’d think I’d have pumped the Shakespeare references through my own work, no opportunity lost. Sadly, this has not proven to be the case. One of my novels, Savonarola’s Bones, has a big Shakespeare component, but I don’t regard it as anything like my best book, though the Shakespeare aspect seems fine to me. Another that involves a man searching for a lost Shakespeare play is to me unpublishable. The one I’m working on now has a major bit “pencilled in”, but I haven’t got to it yet and may change my mind.
Well, it does puzzle me. Giordano Bruno, Savonarola, Celine, Berdyaev, Dostoevsky – they all get there, no problem. And the writers among them stand tall for emulation. But not William S. Sometimes I think that the reason Shakespeare is harder to make work into one of my books is that he is too big to handle, and there might be something in that. Then I think that it’s because he was primarily a playwright, if a poetic one, and I write novels. There might be something in that too, but…
My plan now is to make good with the Bard this time. The book I’m writing now owes a lot to Dostoevsky, but not in the sense of discussing him as it was with The Russian Idea, which features a very large helping of the great man.
There is a let-off too, that I do incorporate Shakespeare into my books in my thinking and what interests me and how I express myself and so on. A pale version, without doubt, but a version even so. But I’m not going to flatter myself like that. It’s probably not even true.
Whatever, Shakespeare is worth another visit another time. Hope you have enjoyed this one.
This one is another five star effort, but if you don’t like Shakespeare and have reached this point, have another two or three. They’re free to a good home.