Oh Posthumous, alas, where is thy head?
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Industrial Shakespeare. By The Doktor

It is frequently asserted that each age interprets and reproduces art in its own image, using it for its own ends. This could hardly be otherwise, a work that has no relevance will fall into disuse. It is to Shakespeare's credit that audiences, directors, performers and even critics still find something in them. While it may be hard to associate the notion of eternity with anything human in our era it is clear that Shakespeare, and the stories told by Shakespeare, will be in culture for as long as culture remains anything we can find recognisable.

Shakespeare is much discussed by academics. One of the features which has attracted their attention is the quality of his language. At its best it is rich, vivid, appropriate to character and context, allusive, subtle, supple and strong. He writes lovely blank verse, which improves over the course of his career. I know little as simple and moving as Lear's last speech :

'............. No no no life !
Why should a horse, a dog, a rat have life,
and thou no life at all..............'


and he had great range. His jokes are not funny anymore, but time has not treated his dramatic verse and prose too roughly. Certain passages may seem meaningless through over-use and decontextualisation, but although they; (Hamlet, holding a skull, reciting a mish-mash of soliloquy; Romeo and Juliet at the balcony "Wherefore art thou Romeo ?" "I'm over here, played by Bernard Manning / Michael Barrymore / Frank Bruno") are parodied as cliches, re-integration into the structure can restore their meaning.

Shakespeare suffers as a poet by his removal from dramatic context. Empson ('Hamlet when new' in '86), makes a good case for Hamlet deliberately playing on the stage nature of 'Hamlet' as a dramatic device, a self-awareness which seems avant-garde even now, and reminds one of Brecht. Romeo and Juliet are a parody of young lovers; other characters, the Nurse, Mercutio, provide an ironic counter-text to their passion. Shakespeare in anthology serves neither Shakespeare nor art. On what grounds is 'Where the bee sucks' anthologised ? Is it a good example of Shakespeare's dense, rich, supple verse ? No, it's uncommonly simple and naive. Is it any good ? Not really. It is in this book because it is usefully short and by Shakespeare, if he is not someone else.

Shakespeare was also capable, it seems, of writing marvellously badly. The early history plays may be dull, but the line in Cymbeline, for example, where Imogen, speaking to a corpse she believes to be that of her Husband enquires

'Oh Posthumous, alas, where is thy head ?'

(IV,ii,320-321) would require a nerve of steel from any actress.

It is the use of language that gives Shakespeare much of his resilience. Other writers have sought to give new life to old stories, self consciously or not, (indeed it is sometimes said that there are only five 'plots', not that anyone has ever told me what they are) but not all adaptations have proved as long-lived as Shakespeare's. At its best Shakespeare's use of language is as rich and telling as anything I ever read, bringing a wealth of flavours and undertones to each image, as well as being vibrant and 'springy' verse carrying dramatic motion. This is, and will remain, an astonishing achievement. Language has changed, leaving us with a gap in comprehension compounded by doubtful transmission; however, it can hardly be maintained that Shakespearean standards of integration, allusion, atmosphere, imagery and emotional resonance in the language of his plays have been regularly exceeded by writers in any form since his death.

Each critic has a version of what, how and why Shakespeare wrote. Shakespeare is many things to many people. To some he is Bacon. To some he is a secular religion. He is now an Industry. From his largesse he funds the toil of countless quibbling academics. Like God, Shakespeare is everywhere, literally unavoidable. (George Fodor uses examples from Shakespeare to illustrate his proposals on meaning in 'Psychosemantics'). He has been a Tory, a revolutionary, a proponent of cosmic order, the bearer of eternal truth, a theologian, a determinist, the repository for all that is 'reactionary'. In this welter of projection it is easily forgotten that he was a dramatist. It seems Shakespeare is one of the most transparent of authors, he is not given to editorialising or stating his position, his characters speak from their own perspective. Keats and Jorge Luis Borges feel this (Borges has Shakespeare in conversation with God after death, each confessing that they have no point of view to call their own), and the wealth of conflicting opinion and the variety of productions created over the last 350 years, particularly the last 100, would seem to bear it out. Shakespeare gives a surprisingly wide range of social classes and personal viewpoints cogent and often moving expression. He wrote well for even marginal characters. This alone could account for much of his adaptability and longevity.

For 200 years or more he has been the pre-eminent exemplar of English Literature. No matter how many whining schoolboys are bussed unwillingly to Stratford there must be other playgoers still pleased to to see Shakespeare in performance, actors and directors interested, even eager, to stage Shakespeare. Each interpretation is likely to emphasise certain aspects at the expense of others, and each production differ. Each performance is made anew, participating in Benjamin's mystical 'aura' of the 'original'. This is one of the qualities of Drama that has helped Shakespeare survive. Drama itself is an adaptive medium.

Shakespeare's sources are various, and most of his plays derive from stories old enough to be termed 'myth'. Some are related by Boccaccio, some derive from classical Roman and Greek authors, almost all are relayed in various forms by various authors up to Shakespeare's time, making the tracing of their origins complex. It seems likely that Shakespeare's plays were performed in various versions by his own company, indeed I would like to propose, entirely without evidence, that they might have been worked up among the company and put into shape, or various succesive shapes, by Shakespeare. The earliest versions we have of his plays differ in various ways from each other. Such adaptability may be 'built in', like our own obsolescence. Most Shakespeare plays were always the result of centuries of story-telling.

The nature of power, the will to power, justice, mercy, nation, society, fate, religion, divine order, and personal responsibility are all present and in discussion in the History plays. 'Hamlet' deals with Parent/child relations in a manner that seems to prefigure Freud's Oedipus Complex. 'Romeo and Juliet' frames the concept of romantic love. A few stories seem to have no direct antecedents, 'The Tempest', for example, which nevertheless participates in debates over Governance; but most have been derived from material already honed down to the essentials by the passage of time. Almost all differ from the sources in some aspects of plot and characterisation, and all seem to have been heightened in terms of dramatic contrast and excitement. 'King Lear' has its horror and tragedy vastly deepened by the death of Cordelia. Sometimes his treatments seem strikingly bold and modern, as when Hamlet is made to point up his own delay throughout the play, following the whims of the plot with passionate disconnectedness.

Themes are so many and varied that each generation of critics seizes a handful and says it is a haystack. There may be a good deal of 'reading in' of over-arching schemes. Personal relations are certainly considered, both romantic and friendly. Parents worry about children, children about parents, lovers about the beloved, men about women, the ruler about the ruled and vice versa all in a welter of symbolism drawn from classical myth and Christianity. Different religious worlds co-exist in the same play, sometimes conflicting, sometimes without apparent effort. Politics is considered, and the 'common man' given his voice, although not as loudly and as often as some. There is a great deal about sexual jealousy, about morality, about proper conduct. The imagery goes deeper into the thematic material than a plot summary could demonstrate.

These stories and themes, then, seem to prefigure the course of psychoanalysis, encompassing Frued, Adler and Jung, and the relation of people to fate / destiny / providence / fortune / the stars is examined too, bringing in to question determinism, free will, divine intervention and divine justice. The emotional landscapes of Lear, Macbeth, Othello, Hamlet and Troilus and Cressida are unremittingly harsh and bleak. We are presented with beings driven by foolishness and suffering to the edge of human experience, and we are offered little by way of comfort. Madness, war, jealousy and social disorder (the great fear seems to be civil war) are themes. Public and personal relations and their interaction are debated in 'Romeo and Juliet', 'Troilus and Cressida', 'The Merchant of Venice'. In the late plays children enact a reconciliation and redemption unavailable to Romeo and Juliet.

Shakespeare's company was first sponsored by the Lord Chamberlain, a very senior official of the Court. The plays, written in a time of acute and increasing political repression under Elizabeth, were subject to censorship as text at the outset. Drama was very much the rising popular medium early in his career, and there seems little doubt that Shakespeare was a popular dramatist with his contemporaries. His audience is thought to have been drawn from a wide cross-section of society, and his works largely performed in less than salubrious areas of London, although later in his life the nature of the theatre seems to have changed, with an increasingly well-to-do audience. Careful analysis of contemporary events can often be fruitfully linked with the detail or background of the plays. The effect of the European Renaissance is felt at this time in British cultural life, Shakespeare gives evidence of this with classical pagan and humanistic strands mixed with Christianity. The Elizabethan era was one of relative prosperity, Britain beginning a long career as a Nation of pirates and 'imperialists'. All this can be detected in Shakespeare's texts and influences his work. An age of increasing technological and intellectual development is beginning. This expanding mind, the 'optimism' of the renaissance enters but does not dominate Shakespeare's work.

Shakespeare writes slippery time, in 'Romeo and Juliet' for example, and Hamlet, which worries commentators seeking Aristotelian unity. Shakespeare was no classicist, however, he was involved in creating new forms, and any confusion of time is used by him to give a dramatic effect in performance, strengthening motivation in 'Othello', for example. Close textual study reveals as a defect, an inconsistency, what is a way of compressing action in the interests of the stage. Thus Hamlet's procrastination leads him to be two ages, and to pass several weeks on board ship in a day or two at most. Apart from ambiguous time, Shakespeare also performs feats of ambiguity in every other department, as elucidated by William Empson and others. Ambiguity, multi-valency are sources of great resilience, and strategies adopted by literature under censorship. It is not just language which is invested with ambiguity. Relationships are ambiguous, witness Falstaff and Prince Hal. Conclusions are ambiguous, c.f. 'Measure for Measure'. Motivation is (see Iago). Shakespeare's intentions certainly are, indeed the range of Shakespeare's intentions, as set out by critics, fills many long nights with quiet moaning. As Empson says; '......the dramatic ambiguity is the source of these new interpretations, the reason why you can go on finding new ones, the reason why the effect is so rich."

('Falstaff' in Empson '86 p.38.)

From what little we can infer of Shakespeare's working practices he would not object to his plays undergoing re-interpretation. For much of this we have to thank generations of critics from Johnson, Hazlitt, Bradley et al, whose interest has been stimulated by the sheer size and quality of the body of work we call Shakespeare. There are 36 or 37 plays in various versions, narrative poems, a sonnet sequence. Critics will always judge by their own measure. Thus : '...the sub-human element in the population must have been considerable in Shakespeare's day; that it should be treated like beasts was taken for granted.' (Tillyard, '62. p.277.) - and no doubt right and proper to his way of thinking, as he makes clear in a passage attempting to excuse Henry V of one of his bouts of heartlesness.

Some cultural bias is unavoidable, and new bias superceeds the old. That Shakespeare has been consistently represented or appropriated by every generation is a demonstration of the strength of his texts, not their weakness. Shakespeare spreads out into culture, increasingly removed from context, and is deployed to defend all manner of viewpoints. To say that none of these appropriations is Shakespeare's fault is not to deny them importance. Shakespeare can be read as a cultural phenomenon, of no more intrinsic interest than the advertising of washing powder, although with a longer and even more contentious history. Concentration on the ripples in the pool ignores the cause of the disturbance. It is the merits of the works themselves which have allowed them to survive through four centuries. Their persistent misrepresentation by all-comers is not surprising. Works produced under censorship must weigh their words carefully, and Shakespeare is better fitted to withstand an inquisition than most.

Perhaps the growth of the 'Heritage Industry' is a sign of our contemporary awareness of change as a rapid and destructive process. Renaissance optimism has rather worn off. We are beyond reason. Our distrust of the technology on which we depend; our awareness of planetary mortality; our love of tourism; all these have fuelled a desire to preserve and market our culture. Americans, in vast numbers, flock to Stratford to see Shakespeare, and Shakespeare's England. It is unfair to blame Shakespeare for this, but it is sometimes hard not to resent icons.

Shakespeare is everywhere. His empire still expands. Discussion of him proliferates. An increasing large-scale institutional involvement in Shakespeare over the course of this century has led to his incorporation in tea-towels, his superimposition on mugs, and countless other manifestations of the tourist merchandiser's art; whether this cheapens the work itself is uncertain, but the great Shakespeare tourist machine has constructed a mighty industry on the basis of a bland bardolatry. It is nearly unthinkable that this will collapse overnight, any more than the Disney empire, or E.M.I. is likely to disappear. However, it is unlikely that mere economics can keep a cultural form alive, it requires a commitment from a large number of people to do so. If audiences still make connection with Shakespeare's work, then Shakespeare will continue to be remade. Institutionalisation and decontextualisation present the greatest threats to his continued relevance. Shakespeare's health seems good, but he has put on a lot of weight over the last century or so. This puts a strain on the heart. 'Heritage' and 'relevance' are not always comfortably yoked together. Shakespeare, as ever, stands at a crossroads.

© The Doktor



Benjamin, W., 'Illuminations', Cape, London, 1970.

Dollimore, J., 'Radical Tragedy.', Harvester Wheatsheaf, London, 1989.

Empson, W., 'Essays on Shakespeare.', C.U.P., Cambridge, 1986.

Fodor, G., 'Psychosemantics.'

Furness, H.H., (ed.), 'Hamlet, a new Varorium Edition.' Dover, New York, 1963.

SHAKESPEARE, W., 'Complete Works', Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1914.

Sinfield, A., & Dollimore, J., (eds.), 'POLITICAL SHAKESPEARE',

Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1994.

Tillyard, E.M.W., 'Shakespeare's History Plays.' Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1962.

Watts, C., 'Romeo and Juliet.', Harvester Wheatsheaf, London, 1991.


© Winamop 2004