The name Shakespeare in Britain is rather like the names Ford, Disney and Rockefeller in the United States. He is less an individual than an institution, less an artist than an apparatus. Shakespeare is a precious national treasure akin to Stonehenge or North Sea oil. He is to be ranked alongside King Arthur, Monty Python and the crown jewels as part of the nation’s cherished mythology. In some quarters, indeed, he is almost as well-known as Billy Connolly. That right-wing troublemaker Prince Charles brandishes the Bard as a weapon in his campaign to defend the Queen’s English, a language that in his case is literally his mother tongue.
Stratford, Shakespeare’s home town, has become a place of pilgrimage only slightly less sacred than Mecca, with American tourists waddling reverently around the spectacularly tasteless cathedral of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. An impressionable few of them are even moved to doff their baseball caps or discard their ice creams. Shakespeare’s familiar high-domed head, an image that is quite possibly not him at all, has adorned everything from TV beer commercials to the £20 note. He is the presiding genius of the national spirit, a kind of Churchill in a neck ruff. Without him, industries would crash and ideologies crumble. It is even rumored that he also wrote plays.
Not all the English have been so admiring. The eighteenth century found his work rather barbarous, while others have found his jokes dismally unfunny. Nor is he easy to appropriate as a patriotic Englishman. There is some swashbuckling chauvinism in his plays, but in King Lear he comes near to championing some form of socialist redistribution. The beauty of the drama, however, is that you can read into it pretty much what you will. There are, for example, times when it is almost impossible to believe that he had not read Marx, Nietzsche, Freud and Wittgenstein. A fellow student of mine at Cambridge argued with a poker face that Antonio in The Merchant of Venice is depressed because he is a promiscuous homosexual, basing his theory on Antonio’s line “I have not placed all my treasures in one bottom.” (“Bottom” actually refers to ship’s bottoms.) This image was unaccountably passed over by the American scholar who delivered a paper a few years ago (without a hint of a poker face) titled “The Anus in Coriolanus.”
Because of his totemic status, Shakespeare proved a valuable commodity to ship out to the colonies. Rather than sweat over textbooks on the English way of life, Indian or Caribbean school students could simply read Julius Caesar or A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The fact that many of the cultural references would have been unintelligible to them was less important than the fact that they were getting a blast of the very essence of Englishness. At home, Shakespeare was and remains the acme of the humanities. When unfounded rumors recently spread that one or two English universities had taken him off their syllabuses, the national outrage was equivalent to the reaction one might expect if medics were to announce that they no longer proposed to study the pancreas.
The Age of Shakespeare, Frank Kermode’s informative introduction to Shakespeare and his times, has some incisive comments to make on the plays, sometimes of an appealingly irreverent kind: The young lovers of A Midsummer Night’s Dream are said to be “hormone-dominated,” while Romeo is “in a melancholy amatory daze about a girl.” The book has no particular case to argue, but it provides us with an elegant, economic survey of the politics and religion of the age, along with some shrewd speculations on the man himself. Oddly enough for a fairly low-born seventeenth-century working scriptwriter from the rural outback, Shakespeare is better known today than many of his contemporaries. It is true that we cannot be absolutely sure that the Will Shakespeare who was an actor (probably not very skilled) from Stratford-upon-Avon was also the William Shakespeare who wrote Hamlet. Some conspiratorial souls, for whom the Kennedy assassination has nothing on the Shakespeare conundrum, believe that the real Shakespeare was a nobleman who stole the name of this country bumpkin. This is because they find it hard to stomach the suggestion that a clodhopping peasant who couldn’t even spell his own name properly could come to rank alongside Dante and Goethe. One or two of the writers of his time also viewed him as an upstart, but this was probably envy: Shakespeare was big in his own day as he is in ours.