Paul Moon: Is Shakespeare now irrelevant?

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Four hundred years after the writer's death it's time to acknowledge he has less to offer the modern world.
Saturday marked the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. Photo / Supplied
Saturday marked the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. Photo / Supplied

Saturday marked the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, or "The Bard" as he is cloyingly referred to by some of his followers.

Nobody doubts his brilliance as a dramatist, or his place in the lineage of English poetry. However, four centuries on, perhaps we can now afford to be honest enough to acknowledge his increasing literary and cultural irrelevance.

But before being condemned as a heretic for reaching such a conclusion, consider a survey I have trialled casually over the past few years (and maybe even test yourself on it). The three questions I have slipped into conversations amongst a wide range of people have been revealing. Whenever someone has lauded Shakespeare as the greatest literary force in the English language, or words to that effect, I ask them: can they name 18 of his plays (roughly half the number he wrote); can they outline the plots of those plays; and can they describe a point of literary significance in each of them. Not surprisingly, the response has revealed that Shakespeare's works are honoured more in the breach than the observance.

The reason is that for all his enormous talents, Shakespeare perhaps has less to offer the modern world than all the hyperventilated hyperbole surrounding his works suggests. Yet, his name is still a sparkling metaphor for the superlative in English poetry and plays, and in literature more generally. Proof, perhaps, that all that glisters is not gold.

Teachers are among the prime culprits in perpetrating the impression of Shakespeare's ongoing relevance. I have seen their grinning satisfaction as they announce that for the first time, a class is to study Shakespeare, after which their students battle for weeks with archaic language, often puerile jokes, and at certain points, verbiage begging to be edited down.

Shakespeare perhaps has less to offer the modern world than all the hyperventilated hyperbole suggests.

Still, the teachers persist. They may possess a little brief authority, but can be ignorant of what they are most assured. They talk triumphantly of Shakespeare's pre-eminence, but point out to them that John Milton was a greater epic poet, and they may struggle to recall even a single line from Paradise Lost.

And pity the audiences - often dutiful parents or would-be aesthetes - sitting through Shakespeare, enduring tortuous and practically meaningless lines like "As the honey of Hybla, my old lad of the castle - and is not a buff jerkin in a most sweet robe of durance?" Audiences will applaud politely at the end of a performance, but perhaps more as a sign of overdue relief than rejoicing.

The experts are little better. A critic recently expounded on the artistic ingenuity at the beginning of Hamlet, which starts with the words "Who's there?" This was described as ... part of the opening scene's "stunning poetry articulating brilliant psychology". You can believe that sort of psycho-babble if you choose, or you can accept that on the balance of probability, Shakespeare's character - Bernardo - is simply asking ... well ... "Who's there?"

Scholarship on "The Bard" is full of examples of experts projecting all manner of theories and meanings on to his texts. And if these ideas stick, and if others see the same connections, all the better. It seems like madness, but judging by the careers built on interpreting Shakespeare, there is method in it. Such experts are the sort of person the Great Poet described as "deep-versed in books and shallow in himself". And if that line resonates, thank Milton, who wrote it - not that many would know.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

Dr Paul Moon is Professor of History at Auckland University of Technology.

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