In the issue of The New Statesman dated 23 April 2016—the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death—you may find a sort of symposium titled “Shakespeare, our contemporary: the Bard 400 years later,” which offers a forum for a selection of big thinkers to ruminate on how “the Bard” is, really, pretty much just like them, despite being dead for four centuries. We find among the contributions of various kinds and qualities references to Henry V and Tony Blair’s “dodgy dossier” in support of the Iraq war (Rowan Williams), King Lear as representative of “the British rentier class” of today (Will Self), Macbeth and “the war on terror” (James Shapiro), As You Like It and “gender fluidity” (Andrew Marr), and Hamlet and “the cycle of evil,” which is Germaine Greer’s even less persuasive variation on the pacifist cliché about “the cycle of violence.”
Does it matter that Shakespeare would not have understood any of these terms? Do the authors’ points about these and other anachronistic expressions depend on whether or not a miraculously resurrected Shakespeare could first be taught their meaning and then persuaded that it had been something not entirely unlike his own meaning 400-odd years ago? The actress Imogen Stubbs, in making the point that The Tempest resonates with distant echoes of the modern scientific pursuit of bodily immortality, allows her fancy to wander in this direction, writing that Shakespeare’s
work can be preserved for longer and longer as technology advances. And who knows? Maybe one day Shakespeare’s body will be dug up in a car park and his DNA will be analyzed and reassembled and then, like the Globe, Shakespeare will be reconstructed anew. He can buy Richard III a latte at the Globe café and try to justify his misrepresentation of him, before whipping out his laptop and composing a masterpiece about genetic engineering to be performed by holograms—being sure to save it to the cloud, with the password “BraveNewWorld”.
She, at least, is aware of the absurdity of such an imagining. The others, I think, are not. It always amazes me, this need on the part of our intellectual élite to make Shakespeare, in the words of the article—borrowed without credit, by the way, from the late Jan Kott—“our contemporary.” Isn’t it a kind of narcissism? A desire to look into the great artistic achievements of the past and to see in them only ourselves reflected back at us?
I suppose that the urge arises out of a sort of intellectual insecurity, a dim awareness that these and other modern, un-Shakespearean concepts might betray a certain shoddiness of thinking if they didn’t have the support of one the great intellectual brand names from the past. I myself prefer to fantasize about Shakespeare’s explaining to Germaine Greer what a weasel word—that’s a 21st century concept I feel sure he would grasp immediately—she had made of the word “evil,” just like “violence” in the original she plays off. Or to instruct Will Self (a name he would surely have appreciated) in the political tendentiousness of a word like “rentier” as applied to those who have accumulated, by any means, a little more wealth over a lifetime than their children have yet been able to do. But somehow people never seem to imagine themselves as actually learning anything from the great ones of the past brought back to life. They only dream of having their own prejudices confirmed.
At any rate, I know I do. Perhaps we would all do better to heed the words of Howard Jacobson’s contribution to this little Festschrift. Writing about The Merchant of Venice he observes that “The play’s the thing in Shakespeare—the interrelation of character our only guide to truth. What does Shakespeare believe? For all dramatic purposes, nothing. An age that tries as hard as ours to fall back into ideological credulousness—desperate to find answers in systems—more than ever needs Shakespeare’s skepticism.” But don’t those wise words amount to an admission that Shakespeare is not, after all, “our contemporary”—only someone who could, if only we would let him, provide a corrective to contemporary superstitions.