‘Shakespeare is God’. This is what famous literary critic, Harold Bloom argues in his book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. To even an extreme Shakespeare fan, this view seems pretty outrageous. I’m sure many GCSE English students, who would rather do anything than analyse Macbeth, would laugh at the idea that Shakespeare embodies some form of divine being. However, if one can find even a fraction of truth in Bloom’s statement, it seems almost irresponsible to limit our exploration of his work.
But what do we mean by ‘Shakespeare’? Are we referring to the biographical background of Shakespeare himself, the words on the page, or his plays in performance? Although the nature of Shakespeare as a writer (or writers) has been highly debated among critics, I think the focus of this question lies more in the intricacy of his work.
Shakespeare’s use of literary devices is one aspect which fuels our interest in his writing and thus his place in the literary canon. But perhaps this is one instance when it is possible to spend too much time on Shakespeare, especially in the tendency to ‘over-analyse’ his work. Forcing students to examine unfamiliar words that seem worlds away from their modern slang, often leads to the conception that Shakespeare is boring and irrelevant. Even professional actors like Papa Esseidu, who played Hamlet in the 2016 RSC production, explained how he initially ‘hated’ Shakespeare (in an interview with the Royal Shakespeare Company), when he was introduced to his plays in GCSE English. But after actually ‘doing it’, the act of performing brought a ‘muscularity and physicality which allowed the stories to really rise, in a way [he] couldn’t recognise when it was just on the page’.
Let’s also not forget that Shakespeare didn’t just write pieces of literature, he wrote plays. His work was meant to be performed and much of the meaning comes from what is absent from the text. In the Globe’s production of Twelfth Night, for example, much of the comedic value comes from the actors’ physicality. After Malvolio has been tricked into thinking Countess Olivia is in love with him, he dresses up in cross-gartered yellow stockings as he thinks this is what Olivia has requested. Olivia thinks him to be mad and tells him ‘To Bed!’. To this, Malvolio (played by Stephen Fry) suddenly drops his apple on the floor and turns his head dramatically towards Olivia and runs over in excitement. The hilarity of this moment is reliant on the physical comedy; Shakespeare’s work demands physical embodiment.
In her article ‘Theatre is meant to upset – so don’t cancel Shakespeare’, Carol Chillington Rutter (comedy and theatre critic for the Times) explains:
“Shakespeare’s plays don’t ‘mean’ in themselves. They ‘mean’ in performance. […] Theatre is constantly in the business of ‘subsequence’, of remaking Shakespeare. We’re seeing casting that represents our culture at large in terms of race, age, disability; Shakespeare cross-gendered, regendered”.
Shakespeare is part of our cultural heritage and has inspired writers such as Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy and Agatha Christie. And Shakespeare continues to inspire writers in the 21st century, such as Lin-Manuel Miranda, who is most commonly known for writing and performing Hamilton. Aside from the general influence on Miranda’s work there is a direct reference to Macbeth in Hamilton – in the song ‘Take a Break’:
“My dearest Angelica, ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day.’ I’ll trust you understand the reference to another Scottish Tragedy, without me having to name the play”.
Miranda ‘upgrades’ Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter to hexameter through rap and hip-hop. If Miranda can be inspired by something as old as Shakespeare and as contemporary as rap music, it is clear the former still plays a vital role in influencing modern art.
There is always a performance of Shakespeare under way. According to the World Shakespeare Bibliography, there were an average of 420 professional productions of Shakespeare every year between 1959 and 2015. Some of these may have been one-off performances, but others would likely run all year, which would suggest that there are enough around the world to fill every hour of every day. Now, I can see how for someone not particularly interested in Shakespeare or convinced that he is irrelevant, this would seem like an absurd amount of time to be spent on his work. And whilst it is inevitable there have been and will be multiple adaptations that are mostly just ‘noise’, there are numerous performances that express and explore human thought in ever fresh ways.
Shakespeare leaves us guessing, uncertain and confused – but in a good way! He invites us to fill in the gaps and keep interpreting. Because if Shakespeare is even slightly ‘God-like’, we would be foolish to stop exploring.