Shakespeare: A Mirror to the World

By Swift, Daniel | The Spectator, April 23, 2016 | Go to article overview

Shakespeare: A Mirror to the World


Swift, Daniel, The Spectator


The best new books celebrating Shakespeare's centenary are full of enthusiasm and insight -- but none plucks out the heart of his mystery, says Daniel Swift

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Who's there? Shakespeare's most famous play opens with this slightly hokey line, and the question remains for his countless audiences, biographers and scholars. Who was this man? What makes his works so apparently endless? Like the plays, his life is studded with riddles. Even the basic facts are slippery and over-determined. We do not, for example, know the date of Shakespeare's birth. His baptism was recorded at Stratford on 26 April 1564, and since it was customary to baptise newborns quickly, it has been accepted that his birthday was 23 April. This is a nice coincidence: 23 April is St George's Day, a celebration of the dragon-slaying patron saint of England, and Shakespeare died on another 23 April, in 1616. It is as if he began and ended at once, and in a neatly Shakespearean twist, there is a little fiction in the festivity.

Shakespeare is today 400 years dead but nonetheless -- like the ghost in Hamlet still here. He is remembered on a £2 coin, newly issued by the Royal Mint, with a skull on one side and a jester on the other. He is on display in Wolverhampton, in a sculpture as small as the full stop at the end of this sentence (it is called, inevitably, 'To See or Not to See'). In this year's centenary celebrations, the Globe company has taken Hamlet to 196 countries round the world. But the most common place we encounter him is the page and not the theatre, for his plays are set texts at both GCSE and A-level, and are therefore one of the few things shared by almost every schoolchild in Britain. We are a nation defined by reading Shakespeare.

In a curious stage direction, Hamlet enters 'reading on a book'. It is a self-

conscious practice, almost a performance. Theodore Leinwand's The Great William shows how for seven writers reading Shakespeare became an obsession. Samuel Taylor Coleridge boasted, 'I have been reading him (almost) daily since I was ten years old', while the American poet John Berryman claimed, 'It's awfully silly ever to do anything but read Shakespeare.' 'I shall I think never read any other Book much,' wrote John Keats, and in his copy of the plays scribbled down a sonnet in which he promised to 'once more humbly assay/ The bitter-sweet of this Shakespearean fruit'. For the American postmodernist Charles Olson, Shakespeare's words were 'candy' that melts in the mouth.

Coleridge famously praised Shakespeare as 'myriad-minded'; for Berryman, he was 'that multiform & encyclopaedic bastard'.That Shakespeare looked different to each of these writers is a sign of both his variety and their narcissism, for each found in Shakespeare his own tastes reflected. For Ted Hughes, Shakespeare was a shaman and the plays were pagan rituals. Allen Ginsberg, lecturing in California in 1980, discussed the sonnets as a story of 'sweet love' between men. 'Has anybody been in this relationship?' he asked his students, and answered, 'I have.'

Six of Leinwand's writers are men and poets. The seventh, Virginia Woolf, is the only woman and the only novelist, and her inclusion reveals what a boy's club Shakespeare worship can be. For the men, Shakespeare was the great father to wrestle with or the prize fish to catch, and all that posturing ends up feeling like big-game hunting. Woolf, however, was different. Because she was such a wry, ironic thinker, she saw all things from several angles, and when she looked upon Shakespeare she noticed both his triumph and what had been left out. In her famous lectures, collected in A Room of One's Own , Woolf imagined that Shakespeare had a sister, called Judith. This sister might have been, Woolf wrote, 'extraordinarily talented' and yet in Woolf's telling she ends up alone and driven to suicide by her exclusion from the world of male high culture. …

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