As Oxford Shakespeare Festival starts, Megan Lynch defends the Bard and his legacy.
Shakespeare in this country is a bit like high culture’s version of conversations about the weather. Fundamentally British and occasionally slightly annoying in the frequency with which it crops up. Although the bard has been dead for a good four hundred years, he’s bequeathed us a legacy that we still trade on today; he inhabits schools syllabuses, and has inspired such filmic gems as ‘West side story’, ‘10 things I hate about you’ and ‘Forbidden Planet’. In fact, he only really came into fashion as a poet for all time in the nineteenth century, and he’s managed to hold on in our imaginations up until today largely because we keep finding news things in him. In short, it’s deep.
But also, Shakespeare deserves brownie points for the vagina jokes. Seriously, have you counted them? Shakespeare is pretty indecent, actually. Vagina and penis jokes were a fairly common trope of early modern theatre, but the thing is, old Will just does the banter so well, line after line, with merciless hilarity.
Basically, Shakespeare has us by the balls in the banter department. But do these jokes get old? Are we just flogging a dead horse by filming Coriolanus in Serbia, or by letting Kenneth Branagh run the gamut of the great, the good, and the disturbingly devilish of Shakespeare’s characters? Well, maybe, but if you whip the dead horse enough, you end up with the makings of a horse casserole. Questionable dinner plans aside, the point I’m trying to make is that – if our literary theory friends are to be believed – texts have infinite potential readings, and the more readings we attempt, the more we find to read into the text. And that includes readings that cast Pandarus of ‘Troilus and Cressida’ as a syphilitic transsexual madam (seriously, it’s been done), and Macbeth as a psychotic chef. It really doesn’t matter if in contemporary performances, the ‘Taming of the Shrew’ would’ve celebrated the subjugation of Katherine – if a modern director wants instead to make a comment about the patriarchy hating on them womens, then be my guest. And be Shakespeare’s. Apart from anything else, attempting to recreate a Shakespeare play along the lines of a contemporary performance doesn’t really work anyway, because all we have in most cases is the printed folios and quartos. Four hundred years ago, you just didn’t get the same sense of the ‘sanctity of the text’ as you do today. If the bard treated his own texts like this, why shouldn’t we?
The thing is, Shakespeare may have been ‘the soul of the age’, but perhaps that’s the problem. We don’t need to stop performing Shakespeare; we just need to be less stuffy about it. So riff on Will’s work, experiment, re-write and even rap with it. I’m sure if he could see it, he’d appreciate the banter.
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