Four hundred years of Shakespeare: have we been blinded by ‘bardolatry’?

Is the Bard, who died 400 years ago this weekend, on April 23rd, 1616, really the greatest playwright to have lived – or have we been blinded by ‘bardolatry’?

Shakespeare, like sex, apparently sells: William Shakespeare in the Chandos portrait, from circa 1600-1610

Shakespeare, like sex, apparently sells: William Shakespeare in the Chandos portrait, from circa 1600-1610


Through no particular fault of his own, William Shakespeare came into this world and departed it on the same day of the year – it falls this weekend: April 23rd – making any calendar-based consideration of the man an automatic meditation on birth, death and the sound and fury in between. Conveniently, this is also the preoccupation of his works.

A more heretical question is whether he really deserves such attention. To ask such a thing in a classroom, lecture theatre or theatre foyer is to risk foolishness. The genius of Shakespeare, who died 400 years ago, in 1616, is apparently inarguable, his poetry and philosophy unsurpassable, and the proof is in his undiminished popularity: endlessly restaged, forever prescribed, Shakespeare is always with us.

And yet he remains a mystery. There are no diaries, no notebooks, no surviving texts with revealing marginalia (a fact made more curious by the fact that the Elizabethans were not slow to document things). If you want to find the man you have to seek him in his work – all 37 plays and 154 sonnets. And even there he gives little enough away.

This has fuelled the phenomenon of “bardolatry”, an approach to criticism that finds Shakespeare’s works beyond reproach, in expression, form and politics. The troubling misogyny within The Taming of the Shrew, the anti-Semitism within The Merchant of Venice or the racism within Othello (never mind the roaring jingoism of various history plays) is usually explained away as dramatic convention, or subtly ironised, and usually staged today in soothing parentheses.

But, as the academic Patrick Lonergan has pointed out, what does it say that The Merchant of Venice and Othello were among the most popular plays of Nazi Germany? Everyone, it seems, is able to make Shakespeare their own.

To pick on an easy target, the Victorian poet and critic Matthew Arnold wrote a poem so fawning that if Shakespeare had lived to hear it even he might have tried to divert the credit to the 17th earl of Oxford. “And thou, who didst the stars and sunbeams know, / Self-school’d, self-scann’d, self-honour’d, self-secure,” it grovels, as though in earnest pursuit of a gold star from the heavens. The heavens, Arnold knows, is where Shakespeare now resides. “All pains the immortal spirit must endure, / All weakness which impairs, all griefs which bow, / Find their sole speech in that victorious brow.”

It’s a cloying example, but it is hardly alone in a culture of commentary around Shakespeare that resembles a contest about who can sing their praise the loudest.

Who wrote this, though, about Cymbeline: “For the most part stagey trash of the lowest melodramatic order”? Or this, on Othello: “To anyone capable of reading the play with an open mind to its merits, it is obvious that Shakespeare plunged through it so impetuously that he finished it before he had made his mind up as to the character and motives of a single person in it”?

Step forward George Bernard Shaw, an Irish iconoclast who was as intent on scandalising the British public with his theatre reviews as he was with his plays. (He also fantasised about digging up Shakespeare’s body to “throw stones at him”.)

But where Arnold and the bardolaters embalm Shakespeare in pieties, Shaw and the iconoclasts dare to treat him as their contemporary (to borrow the critic Jan Kott’s phrase).

Shakespeare’s actual contemporaries could sound much more divided about his merits. Ben Jonson expressed misgivings about Macbeth’s overwrought speeches and Shakespeare’s “little Latin and less Greek”, while the hilariously intemperate diarist Samuel Pepys, who attended the first productions, found A Midsummer Night’s Dream to be “the most insipid, ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life” – which was still better than his take on Romeo and Juliet: “the worst that ever I heard in my life, and worst acted . . .” Everyone’s a critic.

Could anything upset the status of a playwright who has provided the bedrock of the canon for four centuries, whose words, come what may, will always be unconsciously part of our daily conversation, whose Leaving Cert-sanctioned texts we carry around like watermarks of personal vintage (Hamlet, 1996) and whose ubiquity on the professional stage has even drawn comparison to Martin McDonagh?

That seems to be the anxiety of scholars who deplore new translations of Shakespeare’s plays into “modern English” or see off-the-wall productions of the tragedies as sniggering acts of revenge. This may be the disquiet of the canon and all works that come to us by rule rather than choice. Is our deep regard for Shakespeare genuine or has it been drilled into us, like a religious belief?

Monsterist manifesto

Richard Bean

That can also be a keener form of reverence. You don’t burnish artists’ legacies through obeisance. You pay them respect by continually sounding out their work to find out whether it is resonant or hollow.

It isn’t hard to see where a failure to interrogate leads us. If Shakespeare in performance is ever boring, it is because it is inaccessible, and if it is inaccessible it is because the people performing it have not worked to understand it. “Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue,” Hamlet advises the visiting actor, “but if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines.” Sound advice, then and now.

The revelation and relief of DruidShakespeare, Druid theatre company’s award-sweeping version of the Henriad cycle, came not from the fact that this was an Irish version of Shakespeare, and certainly not from any attempt by Druid to prove themselves worthy of him, but from the fact that they had decided Shakespeare was worthy of them, that he belonged here.

There is something quite touching about parties who lay more dubious claims to Shakespeare. In the past few weeks the word “Shakespearean” has been applied to the Netflix political drama House of Cards (a lite-beer Macbeth with a gratifying number of asides and soliloquies), the risible Billions (“a huge King Lear, Shakespeare kind of battle”, according to its frat-house kind of writers) and even the forthcoming Irish-set EastEnders spin-off Redwater, pitched as having “echoes of a Shakespearean drama”. You have to take their word for it. But there’s no pressure on showbiz marketing departments to claim Shakespeare as kin: they know what we want. Shakespeare, like sex, apparently sells.

Shakespeare, it seems then, commands our attention, whether it’s his birthday, his deathday or, indeed, any day. The reason his work endures – a point on which even Arnold and Shaw might agree – is that any art worth preserving is worth arguing over, to be revisited and reappraised anew.

His final lines are etched above his grave: “Blest be the man that spares these stones, / And curst be he that moves my bones.” They are far from Shakespeare’s finest words, but, like his best characters, he had the good sense to go out on a couplet.

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