Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Some Musings on Shakespeare

Why does everyone revere the works of Shakespeare? Is he really a genius, more of a genius than any other poet, playwright or author England has ever produced, or is it merely a reputation? Certainly, one disgruntled Amazon customer was less than impressed with the complete works of Shakespeare...

I quote: 'Having read some of this mans works I have to say I'm thoroughly dissapointed. Considering most of his works have been made into blockbuster films I think it's important to note that this really is a case of the films being better than the books (in all cases). The language used is outdated and terrible for most people to understand. I'm surprised this man has become as sucessful as he is and I think he is massively overrated. Many of the plots have been done before or just been copied from history. Let's just hope he doesn't write anymore of this crap! Don't waste your money.'
Serious (which would be worrying) or not, is it time for Shakespeare to be replaced by someone more... modern? Here, I hide to avoid all the pens, probably quill pens, which are launched at my head by angry English Lit students.

I rather like Shakespeare, I have to say. I have voluntarily read a number of his plays (not all, though slowly getting there), and thoroughly enjoyed studying 'The Tempest' and the Scottish Play (seeing as I've annoyed the Lit students, I should probably avoid getting in the bad books of thesps too!). On the other hand, I also thoroughly enjoyed 'The Shakespeare Secret' by J L Carroll, which is unlikely to ever make it onto the reading lists of... Well, anyone apart from those like me who just enjoy a good read, whether it comes in mass market paperback form sold at Asda or not. Speaking of which, does anyone else find it amusing that with all the scorn for mass market paperbacks, most of the 'classics' have been reprinted cheaply in precisely that form? Ah well. I've digressed. Where was I? Whilst Shakespeare is a staple, some books are banned from use in A-level coursework, such as 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time'. What's wrong with that book? Is it merely that it was published in the last twenty years (bear with me while I check that... ah, last ten years, it's a modern imposter, only came out in 2003 so can't possibly be any good). Or is it that it was published as a children's book? Or... Who knows? But you cannot deny that it deals with 'issues' and is written in a distinctive style.

And that's what put me off English Lit, why, in the final analysis, I realised I was a historian. Does this sound hopelessly bizarre, that I'm a historian because I prefer modern books and so couldn't face doing English Lit? It sometimes feels that way to me. Especially as I have a long running love for Robin Hood, partially because of a wonderful computer game I played years ago. So what do I do? Not decide that I want to study the books I love, but decide that I'd much rather take the 'Robin Hood' paper in history... At any rate, I don't think Robin Hood makes it onto the curriculum. Well, the ballads might, but I doubt the rather interesting version (well, sequel) by Anthony Horowitz would make it.

Why is it that the idea of a modern version of Shakespeare throws up such horror? Is it because the genius is in the language of the plays, rather than the actual ideas? Well to be quite honest, what really fascinates me about the plays is the multiple stories, the relationships between the characters, the very human emotions evoked. And let's face it, Shakespeare was the mass market fiction of his day. I pause here to duck flying feather quills once more. But Shakespeare wrote for a popular audience. He wrote works that were performed in bawdy theatre houses, before an audience that was predominately made up of normal men and women who crammed into the pit to see his plays. So why can't we appreciate, just as much as Shakespeare, the works of authors like Frederick E Smith (633 Squadron series, I love 'em!), Matthew Reilly (fast paced thrillers, such as Seven Ancient Wonders), or Robin Hobb (best fantasy I've ever read, personal favourite is probably the Farseer Trilogy)? 633 Squadron does a wonderful job of exploring human relationships, and that's why I love it. Matthew Reilly... Well, apparently someone said of him that his books lack character development because they never live long enough to develop. But isn't a brilliant, fast-paced action scene that gets your pulse racing just what sword fights on stage are meant to deliver? As for Robin Hobb, well, if you want descriptive writing at its best, I doubt you could beat the Soldier Son trilogy. But for an exploration of what it means to be human, what it is to love and fear, to be discriminated against for something beyond your control, and, okay, some pretty ace sword fights, magic, and an intriguing take on dragons, I reckon the Farseer Trilogy beats all comers. And I'm sure there's excellent romantic fiction out there too, but that's not really my thing. And hey, was it really Shakespeare's thing either? I mean, even Romeo and Juliet has poison, feuding and death.

Maybe the best thing about Shakespeare is that it's convenient. After all, there are whole libraries out there of fiction to choose from, and sometimes you pick up a book and you wonder how it ever got published, before quickly putting it down again/tossing it across the floor in disgust. But Shakespeare is old, has a pedigree of being good, and you can't complain about him in quite the same way as you can for other books, as the reviewer on Amazon discovered. I bet you could go criticise any of my three examples (please don't, they're rather wonderful) and get barely a twitch of the eyebrow. But Shakespeare is defensible. Plus, he's written a variety of genres, so you don't have to worry that you can't just study thrillers, romances, or fantasy. I imagine Shakespeare will remain the most revered English writer. But perhaps it's time to make a little more space on the pedestal. If all the world's a stage, let's remember the bit players from time to time.

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