Lyn Gardner on Theatre and Performance: Shakespeare: A Playwright for All?

Is Shakespeare everything he is cracked up to be? It seems like heresy to even post the question. After all, Alexandre Dumas declared that “after God, Shakespeare created most.” Dryden dubbed him “the divine Shakespeare.” The Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt has confidently proclaimed Shakespeare’s output “the most important body of literature of the last 1000 years.”

Very few would disagree, although a few have, even if they sound a mite churlish in the process. Samuel Pepys was not a fan, dismissing A Midsummer Night’s Dream as “the most insipid ridiculous play that I ever saw in my life.” The great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy was scathing about several plays including King Lear which he dubbed a drama of “mirthless jokes” and “wild ravings.” I have seen dull revivals that have made me think he had a point.

Even Shakespeare’s contemporary Ben Jonson called Pericles “a mouldy tale” and initially thought that “Shakespeare wanted art”, although he subsequently revised his opinion, talking of Shakespeare as “not of an age, but for all time.” I often think that the poet Robert Graves got it right when he said, “the remarkable thing about Shakespeare is that he really is very good – in spite of all the people who say he is very good.”

Perhaps the question should be not ‘is Shakespeare all he is cracked up to be?’, but rather why have his plays endured and what has been the effect of his legacy on British theatre?

Of course, we are lucky to have had him, and may feel luckier still when one considers how the plays almost didn’t survive. Unlike Jonson, Shakespeare did nothing to preserve his own legacy; it was friends who published the plays in 1623 after the playwright’s death. Without this generous gesture, many of the plays might have been lost for all time. Shakespeare might never have had the chance to become ‘Shakespeare’ – the great cultural icon and the even more lucrative British cultural brand used to flog an idea of Britain rather than its reality.

Bardolatry, as George Bernard Shaw (not an admirer) dubbed it, didn’t really begin until the 18th century when the idea of Shakespeare as genius and national poet took root. Prior to that, he was one amongst many great late 16th and early 17th playwrights.

Shakespeare has been one of the UK’s most successful cultural exports. But there is something rather fascinating about the fact that Shakespeare is often at his most interesting and seems most of “all time” when he is exported back to us. As the Globe’s 2012 Globe to Globe season proved, Shakespeare is a German, a South Korean and an Indian. Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood and Ran suggest that he is Japanese.

The world has claimed Shakespeare and constantly re-imagined the dramas, but a recent survey found that a third of British secondary school children had no idea that Shakespeare wrote plays. That may simply be an indicator of the shocking state of arts education and the fact that school trips to the theatre are increasingly rare. It may also be a result of putting a writer on the curriculum – a sure way of making that writer less popular. The plays were written to be performed, not studied in a classroom. Hence the reason why the Digital Theatre collection is so important.

But whereas Shakespeare wrote his plays for the ordinary people who flocked to the Elizabethan playhouses, the last 200 years have seen the plays co-opted as part of high culture.

For thousands growing up in the UK, Shakespeare is something to be afraid of, something from which they feel shut out. He belongs not to them but to the wealthiest, best educated, least diverse 8% of the population, those identified by the Warwick Commission as the group who most regularly attend the arts.

For years, productions of the plays were predominantly cast with white actors who spoke with Received Pronunciation. Only seven Black actors have played King Lear in the last 90 years. One of the things highlighted by the British Black and Asian Shakespeare Performance Database, looking at 1,200 Shakespeare productions between 1930 and 2015, is that while there has been an increase in more diverse casting, BAME actors often find themselves side-lined to minor roles. They get to play the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet but not Lady Macbeth.

Of course, this isn’t Shakespeare’s fault, and fortunately many contemporary theatre-makers are trying to redress the balance, but it is not hard to see that if Shakespeare has traditionally been cast in one way, that it has an effect on opportunity in a theatre culture where Shakespeare is so dominant. The 2014 repertoire report found that of the 96 classical plays presented in 2014, 71 were by Shakespeare. Shakespeare accounted for 6% of all plays produced, 10% of all attendances and 11% of the box office.

No wonder that some, including the late Michael Bogdanov, have called for a Shakespeare moratorium. Maybe it’s time to give the genius a rest for a short period to allow other playwrights – both old and new – to be programmed. Theatre cultures without a dominant national playwright and the literary tradition of playwriting that follows are often more likely to be open to the development of more radical theatrical forms which embrace the visual and the physical. It is perhaps no surprise that Canada and Australia have been at the forefront of contemporary circus or that Flanders has been a pioneer in contemporary dance and theatre.

None of this negates the genius of Shakespeare, but it does make us question whether his influence has always been a benign one. Is Shakespeare all he is cracked up to be? Silly question. Of course, he is. But it is worth entertaining the thought that without him we might have had a more vibrant theatre culture over the last century. I would once have given time to call for a moratorium on Shakespeare, but instead I put my faith in new gender-fluid, colour-blind approaches to plays whose radicalism gives cause for optimism that Shakespeare may yet emerge not just as a playwright for all time but also a playwright for all of us.