This is the first post in what will doubtless be a dismayingly long series of occasional rants.

Via Grace Ioppolo on Twitter, here’s Simon Schama in The Observer:

“Shakespeare is in the unique position of speaking universally while not losing any of the intensity of the language of where he comes from,” said Schama this weekend in defence of the widespread move to adopt Shakespeare as Britain’s cultural figurehead for the Games. “I have watched his plays in German and in French and the effect is the same. If you want something to celebrate in the year of 2012 that is not just the Queen and the Olympic Games, then Shakespeare is there for you. He is inexhaustible.”

So. let me get this straight: Shakespeare is “unique” because unlike any other writer ever, anywhere, he “speaks” “universally” without losing the “intensity” of the “language” of his place and time — even when he “speaks” in German or French translation. Amazing! And he’s more versatile than either the Queen or sports, too! Literary universality FTW.

But wait, there’s more:

“Shakespeare has the kind of elemental pain in his work that we see in the Greek plays of Aeschylus. He does the cosmic stuff and he also does jokes. Jane Austen’s work, in contrast, has a very anglophone appeal. It is subtle and ironic – not that Shakespeare can’t do that too – but if you want kings and the kind of drama that sees a character having his eyes gouged out on stage then you have to go Shakespeare.”

“Elemental pain” really is vintage Schama. The kind of phrase that sounds impressive, profound, and insightful, and turns out, on closer inspection, to be perfectly, almost beautifully, meaningless. What’s the element of pain? Iron? Molybdenum? Is it Unobtainium?

“The cosmic stuff” is also a pretty good one. Like what? “Star-crossed lovers”? And of course all that — the pain (elemental), the stuff (cosmic), the jokes (adjective-less) — somehow transcends the language it’s written in (despite the “intensity”): unlike Austen’s, Shakespeare’s appeal apparently isn’t “anglophone.” This must be especially true of the jokes, right? I’m sure “country matters” is hilarious in German! “Denkt Ihr, ich hätte erbauliche Dinge im Sinne?” Hm. Maybe not. I bet the Klingon is side-splitting, but I don’t want to pay to find out.

And then there’s the lovely Anglocentric arrogance: Austen’s “subtle and ironic,” which is something “anglophone” people love and understand, but, you know, just doesn’t travel well. Shakespeare, on the other hand, has the sort of “stuff” that is universally accessible. Like royalty (which we know gets people watching). And wanton violence (which you absolutely can’t get anywhere else). I suppose you could “go” Kyd, or Middleton, or Webster, or, if you must, Chettle, but really — their stuff is a bit provincial, and their pain’s just a bit molecular, no?

Schama’s still not done, though:

“The amazing thing about Shakespeare is that if you actually deliver Hamlet, orRomeo and Juliet, to teenagers they actually do get the language.”
“With Dickens, on the other hand, whom I love, he is not always great with women characters. You just don’t get the titanic and rounded parts for women like Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra, Beatrice or Portia; characters that escape from stereotype.”

Yup. Not only is Shakespeare universal, and specific, and translates, he’s also, amazingly, totally comprehensible to teenagers, would you believe it. And, greater still, he’s not a sexist, unlike Dickens (love him, mind, but not that great with women. You know his story, right?). “Titanic” is another lovely, and lovelily hollow, word. Exactly how “titanic” is Lady M, for instance? Care to check? About 260 lines. Beatrice? About 280. I will admit that Cleopatra and Portia are substantial parts — as are, say, Rosalind or Juliet. But maybe those aren’t as “rounded”?

What’s absurd, however, is not the suggestion that some of Shakespeare’s female characters are meaty roles, but that once you realize that Dickens writes sucky women, you have nowhere to turn but back to the eternal bard. (Austen, remember, is too refined, too ironic and subtle for non-anglophone ears.) And of course no-one other than Shakespeare ever wrote drama worth reading in English. Let alone female characters.

To sum up: if you want a writer who has

universal appeal but also
linguistic and historical specificity and yet
translates well into other languages while combining
pain, cosmos, and the funny, and yet
isn’t Dickens, and hence has
credible female characters, and
isn’t Austen, and hence isn’t exclusively ironic and subtle, and still
– is understood by teenagers everywhere, while delivering loads of
royal spectacle, and best of all,
– lets you watch eyes get poked out ON STAGE, then

Shakespeare’s your only man. Which is why he’s better, or at least as good, as the Queen and the Olympics. In 2012.

I suppose that just about nails it: well done, Simon Schama.

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2 Responses to People Being Stupid About Shakespeare I

  1. Vincent Schwager says:

    As an Italian I think I can agree with the statement “translates well into other languages”, that is, Shakespeare’s poetry is portable, it translates beautifully into Italian for instance. This, unfortunately, cannot be said for Dante, which is totally impossible to translate into english without totally losing his poetry. It just does not sound right, regardless of the translator’s skill. Having said this, I think that the movie’s underlying theme is total rubbish. Where is it written that an uneducated person of modest mean cannot think or write straight. Sony’s point of view is offensive – it panders to the throngs of snobs and wannages that think that only the aristocrats have thinking brains. Leonardo da Vinci, himself a bastard, had really no formal schooling to speak of.

  2. Carolyn says:

    I’m really, really looking forward to hearing how stupid Stephen Marche’s How Shakespeare Changed Everything may be — that is, if we’re allowed to put in rant requests!

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