by Chris Burn
As the ‘Sweet Swan of Avon’ glides serenely into the fifth century since his death in April 1616, we might do well, for the sake of balance, to remember that he has never been universally venerated, despite the commonly-held view that ‘everyone loves the Bard’.
As is the way of swans, there is more going on below the surface than one might imagine.
To his many admirers, of whom fellow dramatist Ben Johnson was certainly one, he will always be a towering figure, a man ‘not of an age but for all time’. It thus comes as a shock to learn how many critics he has.
Several past literary heavyweights have enjoyed sniping at him – the likes of Voltaire (who called his work ‘an enormous dunghill’), Tolstoy,( ‘crude, immoral, vulgar and senseless.’) Bernard Shaw (‘I despise Shakespeare’) and Victorian icon Charles Darwin (‘so intolerably dull that it nauseated me’).
Earlier figures such as Dr Samuel Johnson and Samuel Pepys were also highly critical, Pepys (usually a man who enjoyed anything theatrical) calling A Midsummer Night’s Dream ‘the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life.”
Most famous perhaps of all his detractors was his contemporary and fellow dramatist and pamphleteer, Robert Greene: ‘..for there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes fac totum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey’.
Shakespeare of course has always been controversial and contradictory, indeed he may have deliberately set out to be, in a way that Donald Trump would recognise; any controversy is good publicity. The almost wilful opacity of the sonnets, the infuriating lack of detail about his life, the confusion about what his attitude and opinion was on so many things – not least on religion, sexuality and family values – all these still produce heated debate. Small wonder that he is discussed more than any other literary figure.
So what is the view of today’s man in the street? An acquaintance recently told me: ‘going to a Shakespeare play is for me like going to church – the people you are watching are talking and behaving in a way that certainly isn’t recognised as normal and appears to have little relevance to the matter in hand or indeed to contemporary requirements of any kind’. Unlike church attendances however, which are melting (in the West at least) at a faster rate than a Greenland glacier, Shakespeare’s audience remains consistently buoyant. Negative publicity does him no harm at all. Donald Trump knows that too.
Another colleague described his attraction like this: ‘Shakespeare’s greatest allure is on the written page. When he is actually performed, the result is never as good as the writing itself – it is all in the anticipation’. Shakespeare in other words, is a bit like coffee; the aroma of the roasting beans and the freshly made brew is somehow always a better experience than the actual taste.
Perhaps the underlying message is that true quality will always prevail and Shakespeare has that in abundance. By far the majority of us consider him to be a National Treasure, and rightly so, in my view.
The Sweet Swan will always trump the Upstart Crow or for that matter, the Donald Duck.
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