Shakespeare Today

     A few weeks ago, I made the mistake of going to see Measure for Measure at London’s National Theatre.

     As usual with Shakespeare’s plays, the audience had to be told the plot beforehand in the program notes, because everyone knows that Elizabethan English will leave you confused within seconds. There wasn’t even an intermission – I guess because the producers feared that half the audience would disappear. The woman on my left sat still throughout the whole performance seemingly impressed. At first, I assumed she must be a renowned Shakespeare scholar. But no, she was fast asleep.

     The truth is that Shakespeare is losing his appeal in his own country. A recent survey found that only 10% of Britons knew that the words “Now is the winter of our discontent” come from Shakespeare’s Richard III, while 71% could identify the words “If only you knew the power of dark side” as coming from the movie villain in Star Wars. This may seem troubling, but appreciation of Shakespeare has been on the wane for some time. British education authorities have even decided that 14-year-olds taking tests on Shakespeare will be able to get by without actually having to read any of his plays.

     Still, Shakespeare won’t go down without a fight. In fact, his works are almost beyond criticism in some circles. I’ve heard many an Oxford graduate say that Dickens is exaggerated, Austen lighthearted, and Dostoyevsky just plain dull; but I rarely hear them knock Shakespeare. The English are brought up to consider that Shakespeare’s brilliance lies in his literary correctness and its powerful form. 

     The result is that Shakespeare’s language invades different areas of our daily life. There are those who believe that to sprinkle his words into a conversation shows how smart they are. Discussing politics, you might hear someone say: “A peace above all earthly dignities, a still and quiet conscience.” You know it’s Shakespeare because you don’t have a clue what it means. But you feel obliged to nod knowingly. And then there are those who have to let others know that they appreciate a particular Shakespearean line. So when Casca, in Julius Caesar, says, “It’s all Greek to me,” a section of the audience laughs in an annoyingly deliberate fashion. It’s a line that wouldn’t cause even a titter if Shakespeare hadn’t written it. 

     But there are signs that cracks are appearing in this Shakespearean alliance, with the attempts to prop him up taking on an increasingly desperate air. One of Britain’s leading tourism websites, probably aimed at Americans, says: “If your previous experience of Shakespeare is confined to dreaded school lessons, give the stage version a try – you’ll be surprised how much better it is!” It’s the same tactic that parents use to persuade kids to eat their vegetables: “It’s not nearly as nasty as it looks, sweetheart.”

     The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) is at it, too, boasting that one quarter of those who go to Shakespeare plays are under 25. But we all know that young people don’t go to Shakespeare plays by choice. Either they’re there on a school trip, or because they’re about to take an exam. 

    I believe that most people who attend Shakespeare plays find them to be dull and impenetrable. Try reading a Shakespeare play at random and see how comprehensible it is. I did, and I got the following sparking insight from Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale: “ Let me pocket up my peddler’s excrement. How now, rustics? Wither are you bound?” Any suggestions as to the meaning? So why bother with Shakespeare at all? Isn’t life just too short for theater in a language barely understandable – in iambic pentameter or blank verse – featuring a character called Bottom?

     I’ve found it rather liberating to say that I’ve had it with Shakespeare. And as with many things in life, once you admit it, you find all sorts of other people agree. Suddenly, everyone’s saying that Shakespeare has ruined their cultural lives.

     So, perhaps it’s time more people stopped feeling that they ought to like Shakespeare, and just admitted that they don’t. It’s time we pulled together and proclaimed enough is enough. As Shakespeare himself says: “To thine own self be true.” Actually that’s not a bad line.