“To mourn a mischief that is past and gone is the next way to draw new mischief on.”
With this line from Othello, William Shakespeare’s prescience knew no bounds. From the moment the great playwright died, four centuries ago this year, he has been lauded through continual reproduction of his work and countless volumes of professorial study. He has successfully installed himself as the finest writer of the English language in the minds of most right-thinking people. He is mourned in the sense that we can hope for no-one of such astounding talent to grace life’s stage again.
And he was, and continues to be, a fucking mischief.
It’s of no small horror to certain people I know that I think it’s high time Shakespeare’s back catalogue was packaged up and sent to landfill alongside every second of footage of the Mighty Boosh and all those boxes of Lostprophets CDs. Shakespeare’s work is so omnipresent it forces worthwhile art to the margins, despite being more wearisome than a party political broadcast read by Melvyn Bragg. If a day goes by where you haven’t heard the name Shakespeare mentioned at some point then, well, you died yesterday, sorry about that.
Not a week goes by, not a week, without some fool declaring they’ve found a new way to present Shakespeare’s plays to an audience who cannot, physically cannot, have avoided being subjected to a good number of them at various points in their life, whether they were willing recipients of this drippy tedium or not. Two days ago a fine British actor, Ian McKellan, known for his willingness to take on unlikely roles, was on the television to promote his new project. A mad new series of sci-fi epics where a brave resistance fights alien invaders who’ve arrived to judge humanity for its crimes against the universe? A kaleidoscopic children’s fantasy set in a world where black, white and grey have been banned and a council of rainbow unicorns hands out lollipops that taste like dreams?
Not quite – he’ll be starring alongside Judi Dench in ‘Shakespeare Live’. I don’t know what that is, but it’ll be presented by David Tennant, who said this: “We have opera, we have ballet, we have hip-hop – all celebrating Shakespeare and what he’s done for our cultural heritage.” Oh, wonderful, wonderful. Let there be no area of British culture left uncontaminated by dickheads in frilly tights.
The principal issue I have with Shakespeare is that we, 400 years later, don’t get to decide whether his work’s any good; it’s been decided for us over many a previous generation, and to err is to spit on our ancestors. Perhaps Shakespeare was the finest playwright in England when he was alive, I don’t know, but once he’d died he began to be feted as the nation’s greatest, against which all other playwrights must be compared. As the decades and centuries wore on, there can be no doubt whatsoever that other writers will have made plays, had careers, that on an objective level will have been the match of William Shakespeare’s, but we’ll have heard nothing about them given they’ll have been drowned out by the ovine howling of lovers of such seizure-inducing comedy as The Merry Wives of Windsor. Without it we’d never have had Birds of a Feather, you know.
Given it’s a safe assumption that every last one of Shakespeare’s plays is being performed somewhere in the world today, it could be argued that the man’s work is a crutch for those who’ve run out of ideas. Can’t get your new play off the ground? Dust down that tatty copy of As You Like It and start readying your Rosalind. Desperate to penetrate the public consciousness before your prostate heaves and the donepezil takes over? There’s nothing like a run through Julius Caesar to stoke the fires one final time. Spaffed the last of your cash on an ill-judged, self-financed remake of Police Academy: Mission to Moscow? Fuck it, let’s Macbeth.
Of course the man himself is hardly to blame for all this; presumably he died as oblivious to the column inches his deeds would generate as that chap off the television with the mad hair who stuck his cock in all those kids. Maybe Shakespeare didn’t even write the plays himself. Just think, you may be unwittingly infatuated with a cipher while the true genius remains unlauded and unknown. Know what that makes you? A Belieber.
Perhaps if the obsession with Shakespeare would serve to ‘draw new mischief on’, he wouldn’t be such an irritant. I’ve no doubt there are some tremendous playwrights around today, yet no writer alive can hope to smash through Shakespeare’s glass ceiling. We have reached the point where it would undermine the fabric of humanity to admit Shakespeare wasn’t the finest writer since God. Any playwright refusing to acknowledge that Shakespeare will reign for eternity will have their next show tomatoed to extinction by a booing mob of English literature students desperate to reaffirm that it’s all right to call Jews money-grabbing bastards so long as you wear a silly hat and pretend to be Italian.
Yes, the Shakespearean horror bestowed on me as a schoolboy was The Merchant of Venice. Though it failed to teach me all people with big noses are evil, it did succeed in demonstrating that popularity doesn’t necessarily equate to quality. This play is a classic, we were told. Why, I asked. I didn’t hear the answer if there was one, given I’d been ordered up the corridor for a caning. Just because everyone says it’s great, doesn’t make it great. I think Mr Blobby was at number one at the time, cracking my point into an open goal for me.
Declaring you’re not a fan of Shakespeare is sacrilege on a par with saying Prince Harry is a spawny rich bastard playing at soldiers rather than a ‘good bloke’, or you always thought Des Lynam was shit on Match of the Day. Views of this type are met with the full force of the British subconscious that doesn’t know why it’s obsessed with a long-dead courtesan from Warwickshire but knows it will flay the first fucker to disparage him.
But how about we agree to give the old boy a rest for a while? You can have your 400-year celebration, but after the imminent Shakespearaganza let’s agree not to talk about the man or his work for, say, 18 months. Scholars will unearth great non-Shakespeare works until-now suppressed by the intolerable weight of the First Folio, new playwrights and new styles will emerge from the long shadow of the Bard, and I can once again do the Saturday crossword without tripping up on the final clue: Secret Moorish lover of Tamora in Titus Andronicus, in no way intended to portray dark-skinned people as untrustworthy and evil (5).
That it should come to this. True is it that we have seen better days. Do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Hark! now I hear them,