The Shakespeare Industry

Discovering HamletIt’s me again. You know: the guy who loves Shakespeare but never has a kind word for him? Once again, those in the Shakespeare industry are putting out the “Shakespeare as secular Jesus” line. I watched a little documentary last night called Discovering Hamlet. It documents the rehearsals for Kenneth Branagh starring in Hamlet at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, directed by Derek Jacobi. And, of course, it pissed me off from the very first line. It is narrated by Patrick Stewart, who reads:

In the history of dramatic literature there is one name that will always be remembered—a playwright whose work is universally recognized as one of the supreme achievements of the human imagination. William Shakespeare wrote 37 plays and among these, one stands out from among the rest. It is called: The Tragedy of Hamlet Price of Denmark.

Shakespeare will always be remembered? Why do people think this? It has only been 400 years since he stopped writing. It was after movable type was all over Europe. It is not exactly surprising that we remember his name today. The question is whether we will remember his name in 2000 years.

Sophocles died 2400 years ago, and is still performed. Most of Euripides’ 90-odd plays have survived this enormous gap of time. And Aristophanes comedies—better than anything Shakespeare managed to write with 2000 years advantage—are commonly produced.

Looking back on the reputation of Shakespeare, one quickly sees that it is the idea of Shakespeare, more than his work, that has been promulgated. In his own lifetime, Shakespeare was certainly not thought to be the greatest playwright or poet, although he was highly regarded. It wasn’t until the end of the 17th century that people began to consider him a great playwright. Then, people noticed that his plays were highly melodramatic and filled with all kinds of over-the-top dramatic elements. During the early 19th century, people turned away from his plays to his poetry—especially the sonnets. In fact, this is lampooned in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. Today, Shakespeare is so edited and otherwise helped along by artists and academics that the fact that there is no there there isn’t even noticed by the theater and film going public.

To be clear: my problem is not Shakespeare but rather with the Shakespeare industry. It is never enough to say that Shakespeare is the writer of some very popular plays. Instead, he is the best. Later in the same documentary, Stewart reads, “Part of Shakespeare’s greatness is he gives every character even the wicked and devious the chance to touch an audience with truth and honesty.” What an outrageous statement! Generally, it is only the evil characters who are given any motivation at all. The protagonists are generally cookie-cutter theatrical stereotypes. “Let’s put a brave young man here!” or “How about a sharp-tongued female here!” If Shakespeare had been writing in America in the early 20th century, his plays would have filled with black minstrels (played by whites in black face, of course). There is much that can be said for Shakespeare, but great characters is definitely not one of them.

As for Hamlet: academics and actors love the play because they are still trying to figure it out. It is long enough and obscure enough that everyone feels there must be great meaning in it. But there isn’t. The play is supposedly about Hamlet finally getting around to helping his poor dead father doomed to walk the earth until his murder is avenged. What does Hamlet need to do? Kill Claudius. But Hamlet does nothing but be obnoxious and kill lots of innocent people. In the end, he does kill Claudius, but not because of his father. He kills him because he sees Claudius kill his mother! How is that great drama?

Can we stop treating this man as though he is some kind of artistic singularity? People don’t even do that for Mozart or Beethoven, and the case for each of them is far stronger.