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Why Shakespeare?

vanessa pupavac november 2013

In Huxley’s Brave New World Shakespeare’s works have become banned books. In the words of the Controller of the Brave New World: ‘civilization has absolutely no need of nobility or heroism. These things are symptoms of political inefficiency’.

Shakespeare is at the heart of the argument between the Controller and the Savage critic of the novel. The Controller argues that none of Shakespeare’s heroes would have had to suffer at the hands of fate. Instead they could sit back in a pneumatic chair with a girl and enjoy watching ‘the feelies’: ‘All the tonic effects of murdering Desdemona and being murdered by Othello, without any of the inconveniences’.

So what matters about Shakespeare and great literature?

Essentially the creative arts epitomise our humanity as individual beings with the capacity to imagine and create a human world beyond biological determinism. The literary critic FR Leavis argued:

What for – what ultimately for?’ is implicitly asked in all the greatest art, from which we get, not what we are likely to call an ‘answer’ but the communication of a felt significance; something that confirms our sense of life as more than a mere linear succession of days, a matter of time as measured by the clock.

And indicatively, Leavis alludes of course to Macbeth’s famous soliloquy:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

To the last syllable of recorded time,

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. (Act 5, Scene 5)

We are currently witnessing a rejuvenated popular interest in Shakespeare. Gritty recent BBC and RSC productions are reaching new audiences. Not only do tickets to the Globe Theatre sell out, but so too do initiatives like National Theatre Live bringing theatre performances to cinemas nationally and internationally. And this Friday (15 November) we have the RSC Richard II with David Tennant streamed live into schools. This event is part of the Young Shakespeare Nation project which seeks to present all Shakespeare’s plays over the next six years – introducing teachers and pupils to unfamiliar plays beyond a school Romeo and Juliet tunnel vision.

Such inspiring initiatives challenge prejudices that people can’t get Shakespeare. But there is a danger in official policy advocacy reducing Shakespeare to a sort of truancy or school improvements officer changing students’ behaviour and attitudes towards learning. But such banalising of Shakespeare is unlikely to stop the declining numbers seeking to study literature, already seriously diminished in the study of foreign languages. This decline relates to the broader crisis of the humanities – for what is the purpose of the humanities without some belief in humanity? It is the lack of a ‘felt significance’ about humanity that is undermining the study of literature.

So what might Shakespearean tragedy offer us today? There is some controversy over what classical tragedy can offer modern society at all. Not only is the genre accused of being elitist but incapable of addressing the enormity of the Holocaust, the gulag and nuclear annihilation.

Solzhenitsyn argues in his Gulag Archipelago (1974) that the mass ideological killings of the twentieth century reduce Shakespeare’s Macbeth to a mere petty criminal who cannot measure up to our concerns.  But is Solzhenitsyn right? We only have to recall Macbeth’s anticipation of human extinction in imagining ‘the last syllable of recorded time….’ (Act 5, Scene 5). Against Solzhenitsyn, the very barbarity of world war and totalitarian regimes led key political philosophers to return to classical tragedy as a genre particularly relevant for historical periods of crisis.

Karl Jaspers’s Tragedy is Not Enough (1952) argues that tragedy dramatises our poignant awareness of the gap between our imagination and reality. As Hamlet declares:

What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me,
what is this quintessence of dust? (Act 2, Scene 2)

So tragic drama is not just concerned with human misery, but involves yearnings towards an infinite world just beyond our grasp. As Hamlet observes:

I could be bounded in a nut shell and count
myself a king of infinite space…(Act 2, Scene 2).

The political philosopher Hannah Arendt explored how the classical tragedy sought to immortalize mortal human beings and their mortal deeds. Each tragic drama tells a unique story and in doing so affirms the uniqueness of an individual human. At the same time, the genre affirms human plurality in confronting us with different standpoints and conflicting virtues. People have often turned to Shakespeare in times of crisis or political oppression. So what is it that makes us feel today that Shakespeare is our contemporary and speaks to our preoccupations?  If Ben Johnson said Shakespeare is for all time, the anti-colonial writer CLR James argued this was only because he articulated his own times so well through characters confronting the passing of the medieval age and the emergence of the modern.

Shakespeare’s drama embodies a particular moment of historical consciousness shared across society, where high and popular culture meet. This is a key reason why Shakespeare remains such a cultural touchstone and why he could be appropriated across the globe. Indeed it was really foreigners, notably the Germans, who really made us understand Shakespeare.

Moreover while Shakespeare articulates the death of classic heroic ideals and the awakening of modern consciousness, he also anticipates our contemporary cultural crisis and the shrinking of the global imaginary. Macbeth and other tragic protagonists take us to a nihilistic abyss and see a world devoid of human meaning.

Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing. (Act 5, Scene 5)

Such bleakness tempted successors to tidy up and sanitize Shakespeare’s tragedies. Nevertheless Shakespeare’s uncompromising tragedies recognise human strivings and affirm humans as speaking, acting, thinking and feeling individuals with the capacity to imagine and create a different human world. In this vein, tragedy preserves the memory of human strivings towards freedom even when those efforts have been politically defeated. As such tragedy is not the opposite of radical progressive thinking, but its tormented insistent companion.


Vanessa Pupavac is author of Language Rights: From Free Speech to Linguistic Governance (Palgrave, 2012). She is currently writing a book about Shakespeare and security governance.

The talk ‘Why Shakespeare?’ was given by Vanessa on Wednesday 13 November 2013 at the East Midlands salon at the Brunswick Inn, Derby.


Published inArt, Fiction & PoliticsBallots & Books