The Beauty of The Bard - why Ireland and the world should treasure and celebrate Shakespeare
Michael Dobson, Director of the Shakespeare Institute, on why Ireland and the world should treasure and celebrate the first figure of literature's influence on us all
It would be hard to overstate the impact Shakespeare's writings have been having across world culture for four centuries. Their continuous popularity and currency over that period have given them a huge influence on the vocabulary and phraseology of the English language, on every creative writer in the language, and on the entire development of the performing arts worldwide.
It isn't necessarily that Shakespeare invented the words and phrases by which his characters are able to engage with each other and with us across a wider range of registers than those of any other writer. But they have now been read and spoken so often in the contexts he found for them, and his plays have been cited so frequently as the classic examples defining their meanings, that even our most everyday idioms owe their familiarity to Shakespeare: even 'what the dickens' is first recorded in The Merry Wives of Windsor rather than anywhere near David Copperfield. Macbeth alone gives 'the be-all and the end-all', 'a charmed life', 'the milk of human kindness', and 'at one fell swoop': Othello has 'foregone conclusion' and 'the seamy side'. As You Like It offers 'you amaze me', 'what's that to me', 'seen better days', 'a parlous state', 'bag and baggage', 'too much of a good thing', 'dead and buried' and 'laid on with a trowel'. The sheer voracity of the new showbusiness phenomenon for which Shakespeare was writing - the public theatre - gives his plays many voices, from the proverbial to the metaphorical, and their eloquence has been rubbing off on the rest of us ever since.
Nor has Shakespeare's influence been confined to speakers of his own native language. Within the Anglophone world, of course, the plays continue to be at the core of the theatrical repertory, shaping our sense of what drama is, training generations of performers, providing extraordinarily amenable raw material for every new type of theatre and each new school of directors, designers and actors. But the fact that Shakespearean drama was being taken successfully on tour around the Baltic and Germany in his own lifetime and has been translated to, and performed in, almost every known language since has taken him far beyond English.
Visibly pan-European in his outlook - making his plays out of classical poems, Italian novellae and French translations as well as from English history, setting his drama in versions of Rome and Troy and Italy and France more often than in London - Shakespeare has over the last two centuries become the first figure in world literature. Continually adapted into every successive new medium - from opera through film to television and the video game - his work has become the common property of the arts everywhere, part of the world's common language.
One result of all this is that it would be ridiculously parochial nowadays to think of Shakespeare as uniquely English - for one thing, it isn't really obvious which present-day country he ought to belong to (since he was born as the subject of an Anglo-Welsh queen of England, Elizabeth I, but died as the servant of a Scottish king, James VI and I, of a realm wishfully called 'Britain' which didn't then legally exist and which has been fluctuating in size ever since). Because his work was naturalised into German so early in that country's development, and has been performed and studied in Germany so widely since the eighteenth century, Shakespeare is in fact claimed just as zealously as the 'third German classic' (alongside Goethe and Schiller) as he is by the British. Even most of the English, after all, know what they think they know about Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V mainly because Shakespeare wrote plays about them.
It isn't surprising at all, then, that Shakespeare's work should appeal as strongly in Ireland as it does in so many other places beyond England, not least because the Irish have such a rich dramatic tradition and such a long and distinguished history as interpreters of Shakespeare. Some of the best records we have of how Shakespeare was performed in the seventeenth century are promptbooks from the Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin, and a ridiculously high proportion of the finest Shakespearean actors and directors ever since have been Irish, from Peg Woffington and Eliza O'Neill through to Tyrone Guthrie and Micheál Mac Liammóir and the Cusacks. Joyce has that nice gag in Ulysses where Buck Mulligan refers to Shakespeare as 'the chap who writes like Synge' - in practice I suspect that if a foreigner were to learn English solely from the poetic drama of Shakespeare, they'd feel more at home in an eloquent Irish pub than among the more inhibited language communities of modern England.
While much of English literature became prosaically realist from the Puritan revolution on, in fact, Shakespeare usefully pre-dates all that. Although he can imitate exactly how people talk in ordinary life when he wants to, he doesn't write drama-documentaries confined to his own time and place or committed to accurate representations of the surfaces of things. His overriding interest is in transformation - his favourite writer is Ovid, the Roman author of Metamorphoses - and his plays deal with characters who define one another and themselves, particularly as they struggle to move from one role to another within the family. They are always new: incomplete until performed and read, leaving much to our imaginations, his characters are as much present with us in the theatre or in our minds as they are involved in stories set long ago and far away. All Shakespeare's plays, histories or not, really take place in the same historical moment - now. They continually ask to be enjoyed and understood anew by fresh generations, in Ireland as anywhere.
What gave Shakespeare the ability to imagine and to share the range of human experiences dramatised in the plays we'll never really know. His glove-maker father's position as an alderman in Stratford-upon-Avon gave the young Shakespeare access to a solid grammar-school education and indeed to live theatre (since John Shakespeare was responsible for licensing the many touring theatre companies who passed through the town during the 1570s and 1580s), and William remained very loyal to the place.
At 18 he married a local woman, Anne Hathaway (who was 26 and already pregnant), and he would invest his showbusiness fortune in setting her and his children up in the largest residential house in the town, New Place, which he bought around the time he also obtained a family coat of arms, in 1597. He seems to have commuted seasonally to London, where he only rented temporary lodgings, referring to himself in legal depositions as 'William Shakespeare, gentleman, of Stratford-upon-Avon in the county of Warwick.' Luckily for us, despite the local allegiances and investments revealed by his biography, Shakespeare is the least local of writers: instead of burdening us with his opinions or anecdotes about his provincial childhood, he has an extraordinary talent for empathy, getting his ego out of the way so that his characters can be themselves. (Even the intimate-looking Sonnets never supply the names of the young man or the dark lady they claim to immortalise - they pun repeatedly on their author's name, 'Will', but they live for their readers rather than for their ostensible subjects).
Michael Dobson is the Director of the Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-upon-Avon, and Professor of Shakespeare Studies, University of Birmingham