Believe it or not, I didn’t always like Shakespeare. You’ll notice if you’ve read St Mallory’s Forever that Helen, who is otherwise like me in many respects, isn’t greatly enthusiastic about the works of Shakespeare. And that’s partly because at her age, I wasn’t either. I know. Me. A contributing member to the Shakespeare fandom who stalks the Hamlet tag on Tumblr.
I know that statement may be shocking to you, particularly if you follow me on Twitter and have seen how often I tweet about Hamlet because I’ve just remembered that it exists, but the fact is that once upon a time I thought Shakespeare was boring. More than boring: when I studied Macbeth briefly in year seven, my overactive imagination led me to be so grossed out by the descriptions of violence that I felt so ill I had to be sent home. I had a grudge against Shakespeare for the next five years after that.
My love affair with Shakespeare may have begun with Hamlet, but I only read the play in the first place because it was referenced in Ballad by Maggie Stiefvater. Likewise I only watched Henry IV because it had Tom Hiddleston starring as Prince Hal. It’s probably just as well I stumbled across Hamlet! The Musical at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2012, or I might never have learned how much I adored the play.
Take a minute to calm down after this revelation and then let’s talk about Shakespeare.
My enjoyment of Shakespeare productions is inversely proportional to how seriously it’s taken, which is why I absolutely adore Hamlet! The Musical and found the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s summary of the Complete Works (Abridged) so utterly hilarious when I went to see it last night. It was a stunning trip through the Bard’s work, with Hamlet dominating the whole second half — something I was pretty pleased about, given that it’s my favourite.
The performance had almost as many dick jokes as the original plays. Almost, but not quite. I felt sorry for the parents who had brought small children along to watch it, probably thinking that Shakespeare was wholesome entertainment for an eight-year-old. Oh man. You’re going to have so many things to explain.
Despite the tragic nature of plays like Hamlet, these productions turn them into sheer entertainment simply by refusing to take them seriously. A rubber skull that bounces across the room? All of the History Plays condensed into one game of American football with a crown instead of a ball?Getting the audience to yell, “Cut the crap, Hamlet, my biological clock is ticking and I want babies now!” when they’re pretending to be part of Ophelia’s subconscious? It’s not supposed to be highbrow. It’s supposed to be hilarious.
We have a tendency to take Shakespeare too seriously — forgetting that the majority of his audience wouldn’t have been high class, forgetting the jokes slipped in to prevent the audience throwing fruit at the actors, forgetting that the vast majority of bits you don’t understand are probably dick jokes because let’s face it, they’re everywhere. We put him up on a pedestal and turn him into a figurehead for academia.
“Humour can’t be educational! We must be intense and scholarly about this!”
And by doing this we turn Shakespeare into a museum piece.
You know, one of the things I loved about Shakespeare’s Rebel, a book I reviewed a couple of weeks ago, was that the author highlighted how Shakespeare used his plays to reflect the political situation of the day and to highlight people’s feelings. Plays were appealing to the sensibilities of the age, and as soon as the audience got bored, the players moved onto something else.
Teachers ruin these plays for their students when they ignore that, and when they ignore the fact that these are still relevant. I don’t believe that everything has to be ‘relevant’ to be worthwhile — we can learn to appreciate things for their value at the time, too. But Shakespeare is one of those things that is.
It’s slam poetry on a stage at a uni event or on a street corner. It’s the lyrics to protest songs, the sentiments behind street art. It’s people vlogging from their bedroom about their deep existential despair because they’ve got no one else to tell (“oh that this too too solid flesh would melt“), hating themselves as they talk to an audience they can’t see. It’s demonstrations in Trafalgar Square or dying in a war on a foreign soil.
It’s fiction and it’s history, but that doesn’t mean it’s not alive and still happening in our world today. How many students are there that never got told that, never figured it out for themselves, and still think Shakespeare is dull and irrelevant?
There are angry students organising last-ditch protests via Facebook, urging their friends to stand with them one more time — once more unto the breach.
There’s a young man alone, cowed by the pressure of his father’s expectations and the demands placed on him by everyone around him, trying to deal with his family situation. But now he’s got sleeping pills or a knife or something and he’s sitting there wondering what to do — to be, or not to be.
There’s a homeless teenage girl dressed as a boy to keep herself safe when she sleeps alone on the streets of London, finding work in disguise, and when her brother comes to the capital she meets him again, when she’d thought they’d never see each other. There are lovers whose relationship is forbidden because of family grudges, because of the law, because of everything that wants to stand in their way.
There are best friends who skip school to go to the other end of town because their friend is having a bad day; friends who believe in the people they love no matter how much they screw up; friends rejected by people who have moved on.
“How Shakespearean,” we like to say, when something is melodramatic and unbelievable. But Shakespeare’s stories play out on the streets around us every day. Maybe there are no fancy costumes, no props and no lighting rigs. We’re not an audience, except unwittingly. Sometimes, we join in, often without knowing it. We’re a walk-on role. We’re the antagonist. We’re the comic relief.
And then once in a while we get the chance to be a protagonist. The leader. The melancholic. The heartbroken. The mischievous.
We need to stop confining Shakespeare to fancy productions for middle-class audiences or to academia where he’s studied by generations of students whose teachers were too embarrassed to explain the jokes. We need to stop taking it so seriously.
Yes, I think Shakespeare should be studied, by people who love it and want to get meaning from it. I adored studying Hamlet, and only came to like the play more. But I think it’s more important to impress upon people that they can go out there and live it. Who cares about the use of metaphor; who cares about the imagery? If you don’t understand the story you’re telling from deep within your heart, why does it matter what the change from verse to prose symbolises?
Go out into the world and live it, because as Shakespeare so rightly said, all the world’s a stage.*
*(Which was also a pretty great pun because after all, the theatre’s called The Globe.)