Is Shakespeare Actually Any Good?


"I know just how you feel, Sir. Who steals my purse steals trash, Ďtis something, nothing, 'twas mine, 'tis his and has been slave to thousands; but he who filches from me my good name takes from me that which not enriches him and makes me poor indeed."
"Neat that. Your own?"
"No sir. Shakespeareís"
"Shakespeare said some rather good things."
"I understand that he has given uniform satisfaction."

Much Obliged, Jeeves.

The reading of Shakespeare is going to be banned. EU inspectors are already knocking on peopleís doors, dragging copies of the complete works from their shelves; great bonfires are being made of Oxford annotated editions; Kenneth Brannagh has been taken into custody. My friend says he knows where he can score an eighth of an ounce of Pericles.

Oh -- sorry -- jumped the gun there. It turns out that there is just a rumour that in the revised version of the revised version of the National Curriculum, the study of Shakespeare might cease to be compulsory. Nevertheless, the lips of our guardians of culture have been flapping out of control, particularly because (according to one version of the rumour) Shakespeareís place on the curriculum might be taken by Web Page Design, Internet Appreciation and the hated Media Studies. The headmaster of Eton says that if any other nation spoke the language of Shakespeare then they would encourage every child to read at least two of his texts; only mad dogs and Englishmen neglect their heritage in this way. Isnít it funny the way language slips around, so that "not compulsory" becomes "banned" and "compulsory" becomes "encouraged"?

Can anyone tell me what "other nations" do, in fact, do about teaching literature? Are certain specified texts by Racine compulsory in French schools? Does every Greek kid have to read Homer? Would American children be legally required to read great American literature if there were any? I believe that the Australians and the New Zealanders do speak "the language of Shakespeare", albeit with funny accents; do those countries legally enforce -- sorry, encourage -- the study of his plays? Or is England unique in having enshrined and fetishised the work of a particular author?

I know that in America and France, the teaching of religion is banned in school, whereas in liberal England it is compulsory. The present government wants more state-funded religious schools committed to indoctrinating children into a limited number of government approved religions. It is proposed that there should be state-funded Moslem schools and Jewish schools, but for some reason there are no plans for state Pagan schools or state Dianetics schools. These "faith schools", as they are quaintly called, are more or less bound by the National Curriculum. Your hypothetical Moslem school is excused from indoctrinating kids into Christianity, but is still obliged to teach them the works of William Shakespeare. This is why the Authoritarian Right get so agitated when anyone suggests that Shakespeare might get taken off the syllabus. It is tantamount to tearing up the closest thing to Holy Writ which this rapidly disintegrating nation still possesses.

I happen to think that Shakespeare is rather a good writer. I have just re-read Lear for maybe the fifth time in my life and Iím still noticing new things about it. You will recall that, about half way through the play, the Duke of Gloucester is cruelly blinded by Learís wicked daughters. I had never before spotted that he spends a large proportion of Act I saying things like "Let me see that letter-- let me see! let me see!" And I had also never before noticed that he sees the truth that his son Edmund is a traitor in the very next line after he is blinded. I saw Corialanus for the first time in my life at the Tobacco Factory, a small theatre in Bristol, last week. It is now impossible to imagine that there was a time in my life when I didnít know the play: it is always going to inform my thinking about family, loyalty, war and politics. Partly that was down to the exemplary production; mostly it was down to it being a very, very good play.

One sometimes meets baboons and daleks who say "Shakespeare -- ptah! dead author with nothing to say about the world we live in." I am stating the obvious fact that Shakespeare is a Very Good Writer in order to make it clear that I am neither a dalek nor a baboon.


Shakespeare is not the only Good Writer in English.

English Literature is not necessarily a better thing than, say, Classical Music, Philosophy or Astronomy -- or even Media Studies.

The Shakespeare who is enshrined as the holy text of the State Religion has little to do with Shakespeare the Very Good Author.

And, if my biography is anything to go by, the teaching of Shakespeare in school does not help very much in our understanding of his Very Good Plays.

The State Shakespeare is a symbol of our Heritage and National Identity, and in particular, a symbol of the superiority of English over all other languages. The English are funny about heritage. Red Ken, who made such a fuss about being made Mayor of London, has discovered now heís Mayor that he doesnít actually have very much power. So he has committed himself to the very important task of, er, getting rid of the pigeons in Trafalgar Square. Of course, the Metropolis is up in arms. How can he do this, they say, the pigeons are part of history! They have always been there. "Always" in this context meaning "for more than a hundred years." Shakespeare, on this basis, goes back even further than always. Heís an arbitrary symbol of the Way Things Have Always Been. Merry England. This Royal Throne of Kings, This Septic Isle. Falstaff. Teaching the Natives Cricket. He sits on our shelves, looking smug. He isnít a collection of long and complex plays, but a poet, who wrote To Be or Not to Be; Once More Unto the Beach; The Quality of Mercy is Not Strange and not much else. Like the Bible, he is to be worshipped, but not read.

The State Shakespeare is also a Subject, like French, Cookery and Netball. He is a verb rather than a noun; after I did my Latin I did my Shakespeare. He is a sub-category of a bizarre process called "English Literature" which has little to do with the reading of books, and much to do with the composing of trite essays on "theme" and "character study."

Granted, I went to school a million years ago in the eighties, when Mrs Thatcher was a good prime minister and Donít Ya Want Me Baby was a good song, so my experience is probably out of date. We studied Richard II, the first play in the history cycle. (Thatís going chronologically; if you prefer publication order, it comes fifth, after Richard III. Donít get me started.) We studied Richard II because we had the most junior English teacher, so by the time she got to the store cupboard, the head of department and his henchmen had already bagsied Julius Caesar and Macbeth. (True.)

The one thing I remember from O level is that Richard is a Weak and Vacillating King. The teacher dictated this after we read the first scene. We copied her exact words down neatly, and then handed them in and got marks out of 10 for how well we had copied them. We were expected to reproduce them every time we did a practice essay on Richardís character. I subsequently found that exactly the same words were in Brodies Notes. I figured that anything that Mrs Lucas and Brody said must be true. If they agreed that Richard Was a Weak And Vacillating King, then Weak and Vacillating he certainly was.

You will of course recall that the play begins with Henry Bolingbrook accusing Thomas Mowbray of murdering the Duke of Gloucester, the kingís uncle. Dukes of Gloucester have a rough time in Shakespeare. The two knights slag each other off before the king in tripping rhyming couplets:

"Lions make leopards tame"

"Yay but not change their spots, take but my shame
And I resign my gage, my dear dear lord
The purest treasure mortal times afford
Te tum te tum te tum te tum te tum,
De diddly diddly diddly diddly dum."

Since neither side will back down, the King orders a trial by combat. There is lots of blowing of trumpets and reciting of challenges ("Oh let no noble eye profane an tear if I be gored by Mowbrayís spear!"), but at the very last moment, the king changes his mind, and exiles them both. How weak and vacillating can you get?

Except that during all the weakness and vacillation, the teacher had not bothered to explain to us the facts that every Elizabethan reader of the play would have known without being told. We were not made to draw a family tree, which might have helped us disentangle lines like "Were he my brother nay my kingdoms heir as he is but my fatherís brothers son". It was not pointed out to us that Richard is the son of the famous super-hero The Black Prince; or that he was crowned king as an infant. And in particular, it was not explained that Mowbray had indeed murdered the Duke of Gloucester, but had done so under the orders of the King, so that when Richard first treats the thing as a private matter between Bolingbrook and Mowbray, and then uses the trial by combat as a pretext to get Mowbray out of the country, he is not being weak and vacillating, but machiavellian, and a complete bastard. In short, we were not helped to understand the plot; we were only made to memorise such fragments of it as could be used as the basis for exam essays.

I recall writing a character study of the Queenís gardener, (go bind thou up yon dangling apricocks) who gets three lines in act V; "Pick two minor characters and write garbage about them" was one question that could be guaranteed to be on every exam paper. Weak and vacillating; weak and vacillating: no amount of Media Studies could possibly have been a bigger waste of time.

Aha, you say; but you went on to study English at college; and you now read Shakespeare by yourself for fun. So obviously it did you some good in the long term.

Well, maybe. It could be argued that during all those long hours of reading round the class and memorising bad notes about character and theme, some of the text went into my brain. Some churches hold a theory of evangelism which says that you should not try to explain or persuade people into your religious beliefs; you should just yell out random quotes from the Bible and sing bad hymns, and the Word of God will do its own work. The worse the hymn singing, the better it works. If you got together a really good gospel choir that was really worth hearing then you would be doing it under your strength rather than having faith in God. Three old ladies with tambourines is much more holy. Maybe this kind of theory attaches itself to "encouraging" children to love Shakespeare. Just throw some texts at them and let the Bard shine through.

If you want to go with this minimalist approach -- if you want to say "well, at least we know that poor kids in houses with no books have been forced to, I mean, had the opportunity to, listen to at least two of Shakespeare texts, and some of them will thereby be turned onto him thus preserving our cultural heritage for another generation" -- then you could abolish all teaching whatsoever: just strap the little buggers into clockwork oranges and force-feed them endless tapes of John Gielgud.

My personal theory is that between the ages of about 10 and about 14, you arbitrarily pick half a dozen things to be interested in, and these stay with you for life. At 35, you canít remember why, or indeed if, you like them, but they are nevertheless part of the fabric of who you are. Irritatingly, I picked Doctor Who, Spiderman, Tolkien, Shakespeare, Wagner and Dungeons and Dragons.

Why? Well, there was a slightly studious, rather geekish, but popular lad named Malcolm who had a complete set of Doctor Who paperbacks and I rather wanted to be like him, so I decided to be a Doctor Who fan before I had even watched an episode of the programme. My Grandad bought me an issue of Spiderman at a point when everyone else in my class seemed to be "getting" a comic every week, so I decided Iíd better become a Marvelite. My father had a great enthusiasm for Shakespeare--he claimed to have seen all 39 plays in production, even Titus Andronicus -- so I decided to like Shakespeare in order to please and emulate him. I might just as well have decided to share his interest in Rugby football, although thank God I didnít.

Itís probably not insignificant that around that time when I was between age 10 and 15, the BBC were doing TV versions of the Complete Works. My parents had the good sense to pick out one or two of the lighter ones and "allow" me to watch them as a bit of a treat. Aha, they would say, --The Tempest-- thatís a Shakespeare play with Wizards and Monsters and sword fighting in it. Probably a bit hard for you, but if you promise to be quiet, you can stay up and watch it.Ö So I had discovered that the plays could be fun and exciting before the crap teacher had a chance to be weak and vacillating at me.

There was a complete Ring Cycle from Bayeuth on BBC2 at about the same time: I have memories of a period when one might watch, say Henry VI part 1 on Saturday evening and Act II of Siegfried on Sunday night. Tom Baker was Doctor Who at that time. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.

If there is any truth in this, then we should be more worried about the abolition of any serious arts programming on the TV than what is on the compulsory GCSE syllabus. Anybody -- when did the BBC last commission a new production of a major Shakespearean work? Bonus marks for Shaw, Chekov, Ibsen or a serious modern dramatist in the Play for Today mould... No? I thought not. But there are lots of cool gardening programmes. As a man sows, so shall he reap.

If what you want to do is encourage people to read the classics, then you have to make the classics available; whereupon some people will arbitrarily decide to like them. Making laws about how many texts kids should read is really neither here nor there. This would involve lots of libraries, preferably ones which appeared to be cool places with coffee shops and computers where a young person might be prepared to "hang out"; lots of good arts programmes on publicly funded TV; and lots of subsidised regional theatres putting on good plays. Oh, and making sure that people had enough spare time to actually read in, as opposed to making manifesto commitments to quadruple the amount of homework children get. This wonít restore Shakespeareís status as Holy Writ: some people will find that they prefer Milton, or Dickens, or Isaac Asimov, but if what we want is the promotion of Appreciation of Good Writing in the Language Of Shakespeare, then it doesnít much matter which particular texts your read. Well, Asimov may be going a bit too far.

If Tony has a scheme under which English Literature will cease to be a compulsory component of the GCSE exam, then I donít think that the world will necessarily come to and end. If all heís saying is that Shakespeare will not necessarily be a compulsory text on the English syllabus, then this is even less of a problem. One could replace him with say Marlowe or Chaucer or Langland or Malory and still get a fair sampling of Works which have been Fairly Generally Admired. Does anyone throw up their arms in horror and say that, if the French spoke the language of Shakespeare then they would insist that every French child had read at least two books of Paradise Lost or Six of the Lyrical Ballads?

But if it were genuinely true that even a single person in the department of education thought that Web Page Appreciation might usefully replace English Literature because it is the Same Kind of Thing; or, worse, if even a single person in the department of education thought that Web Page Appreciation was better than Shakespeare because the one was Modern and Relevant and the other was Old Fashioned -- or, worst of all if Web Page Appreciation was favoured over Shakespeare because Factual, Useful, Things Which Get You a Job are always to be valued over things which are subjective, emotional and to do with values, then we would, indeed, be being ruled by daleks or baboons.

But in all probability, Tony has said no such thing. Heís just leaked an idea about media studies in order to seem cool and modern. Tomorrow, he will leak an idea about more traditional English literature in order to seem patriotic and wise. After the election, heíll come up with six new hair brained schemes, none of which will ever be implemented. I know a weak and vacillating prime minister when I see one.