The History of England

from Celts through 20th century


Category: Famous people

A national poet must be known by the people of his na­tion. Shakespeare has now been allowed the last word in honours — his head on the same stamp as the queen’s.

Only Dickens has peopled our imaginations with any­thing like so many types. Macbeth is part of our image of what guilt is, just as Shylock is acquisitiveness (the “pound of flesh”).Antonyand Cleopatra are the putting of love before all else. Mr Micawber is irrepressible optimism, and Oliver Twist is the maltreated waif.

Yet Shakespeare’s reputation is really the echo at many removes of the day when his plays rang through London. He did not write for print, for generations, only a scholarly minority saw a Shakespeare text, and in this sense his plays are the finest flower of the oral tradition inEngland.

The theatre in the 1590’s held such a key place that Ham­let could call stage companies “the abstracts and brief chron­icles of the time”. “Everyone” went to the theatre togeth­er, noblemen in the galleries, workmen on the ground.

As a showman and actor himself, Shakespeare responded immediately to this close-up audience. It has even been suggested that the differences between the two parts of “Henry IV”, e. g. the growing sordidness of Falstaff, arose partly because Part I was written for the sober citizenry who went to Burbage’s Theatre in Finsbury Fields, whereas Part II was for the rougher classes who preferred the Globe, on the south bank of the Thames, where Shakespeare’s company moved in the winter of 1599.

Catering for strong commercial-cultural demands will not have been all roses for Shakespeare. Possibly “Hamlet” was never performed in full in his lifetime, as it is far longer than the standard play of those days. And the tragic poet may not have been quite comfortable about the practice of putting on a sort of bawdy, knockabout turn at the end of a major play. But close give-and-take with popular culture was mainly a great advantage.

Shakespeare’s success and repute in his own day were un­rivalled. Yet his poetic dramas are in many ways strange, extreme, and obscure— qualities we would not expect the majority of people to like today.

His settings are often fantastic versions of places far off in place and history, his style can be “high” and involved. So it is with his plots: a man deserts his fiancee because of the flimsiest plotting and gossipping. A general strangles his young wife on the mere suspicion that she has deceived him. With no visible motive a king goes mad with jealousy.

Play after play — histories and tragedies — ends with the stabbing, poisoning, strangling, madness of its main char­acters: “Life, not death, becomes obscene as they collapse; the catastrophe is beyond criticism. Human sacrifices all round! Barbaric delights!” (Brecht on Shakespeare.)

After generations of naturalistic novels, people are not attuned to such work, and perhaps dismiss it (or accept it) as Literature — highflown stuff that has little to do with our own lives. This “extreme” side of Shakespeare is akin to the Border ballads, with their sudden jealousies, down­falls, killings of infants and lovers; and the ballads relate back to another ancient literature, the Greek tragedies.

The style he developed ranged from “wild” flights of images to the bluntest vernacular English. His imagina­tion darted in all directions, he seemed to know every kind of person and situation and to have an image for every conceivable nuance or possibility of a subject.

Macbeth blurts out in his desperation —

“… the innocent sleep,

Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care,

The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,

Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,

Chief nourisher in life’s feast.”

In “The Winter’s Tale” a young man compliments a girl —

“… when you do dance, I wish you A wave o’ the sea, that you might ever do Nothing but that; move still, still so:

And own no other function. Each your doing,

So singular in each particular,

Crowns what you are doing in the present deeds,

That all your acts are queens.”

Consider what it must have been like to take in such poetry at one hearing, as you stood on the ground at the Globe, jostled by orange sellers and pickpockets. This union of the popular and the complex was possible because people in a mainly oral culture were adepts at speech, experienced connoisseurs of it.

Popular preachers spoke their complicated arguments to big crowds. Villagers sang and listened to long ballads, and the quickest of them could memorise a 50 or 60-line song at a hearing.

In an age when a lute could hang on the wall at the bar­ber’s, for, waiting customers to play, first-rate poetry could actually be heard in everyday meeting-places.

Shakespeare’s evident delight in giving us a glimpse of this realEngland, even in his extremest tragedies, helps to account for the freshness of his work, compared with the tap­estried, indoors atmosphere of many other Elizabethan and Jacobean plays.

TheEnglandwe sense behind his plays is not all “merrie” and green. Its terrible harshness, in an age when you were lucky to live till 35 and hundreds of thousands of beggars (many ruined by enclosure) roamed the heaths and muddy tracks of a thinly-populated countryside, is the very stuff of “King Lear.”

This real country glimpsed behind even the strangest tragedy keeps Shakespeare’s work in touch with our world.

Here again the needs of the Elizabethan stage may have played a part. Scenery was probably scanty-furniture, screens, and a few objects, rather than complete painted settings, because there was no drop-curtain, the Globe had no roof and performances were by daylight, and the stage jutted far out into the audience. So Shakespeare had every incentive to create the scene with words.

Shakespeare’s society favoured the dramatic medium— so much of its life was already a dramatic spectacle, a piece of vivid outward behaviour.

Popular life then must have been all volatile behaviour, spontaneous speech and ready laughter, a tendency to break out into brawls or festivities.

When Cleopatra cries out asAntonydies —

“Oh see, my women,

The crown o’ the earth doth melt. My lord?

Oh withered is the garland of the war,

The soldier’s pole is fallen…”

the language is that of an age rich in popular symbolism, of badges and liveries, rites and revels, the free turning of the Bible into simple verse-plays and of seasonal farm routines into plough-plays, just as in Breughel’s “Flanders” or Goya’s “Spain” it was the custom to act out man’s natural sense of the struggle between appetite and self-restraint in comic turns such as a mock fight between Carnival and Lent.

All this does not explain why many popular traditions converged, and greatly deepened, in this particular play­wright of the 1590’s and 1600’s. His heroes and villains, with their capacity for deep, even shattering experience and their violent self-assertion, represent, it has been suggested, “the cyclonic force of the princely bourgeois will” in the era of primitive accumulation, when the absolute monarch, the autocrat, had begun to turn business man.

Traditional, feudal, patriarchal loyalities are challenged by blind individualism in “Lear,” “Coriolanus,” “The Merchant of Venice.” The Court was waning as the mer­chants grew more powerful, and in “Julius Caesar,” “Ham­let,” “Macbeth,” and “Lear” Shakespeare is subconscious­ly, but plainly, preoccupied with the issue, raised by James I in his struggle against the bourgeoisie, of the divine right of kings.

To see Shakespeare in history is to get deep into the turn­ing-point at which modernEnglandbegan to emerge.

From Comment, Apr. 18, 1964

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