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What would Shakespeare do?

We’ve heard a lot lately about what Shakespeare would do. He’d be kind to migrants, for instance, because of this passage from the unpublished collaborative play ‘Sir Thomas More’ often attributed to him:

Imagine that you see the wretched stranger
Their babies at their backs, with their poor luggage,
Plodding to th’ports and coasts for transportation (Scene 6: 84-6)

He could offer Republican candidates some advice on how to take down a threatening tyrant; one topical commentator urged Marco Rubio to play Brutus to Donald Trump’s Caesar (although we all know what happened to Brutus), while another addressed Hillary Clinton as ‘Lady Macbeth of Little Rock’ (I’m guessing that means she shouldn’t be President). David Cameron put the laboured into Labour in a string of Shakespeare title puns at a recent Prime Minister’s Question Time, suggesting that the opposition reshuffle was ‘a Comedy of Errors, perhaps Much Ado About Nothing?’. Shakespeare is even interested in climate change, even if his view (in A Midsummer Night’s Dream) that climate change is caused by fairies fighting, is a little off-message:

The spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazèd world
By their increase now knows not which is which (2.1.114-7)

It surely can’t be long before Shakespeare makes an appearance in the EU referendum debates, not least because Boris Johnson is to publish a book on the playwright during this anniversary year.

So What Would Shakespeare Do? (WWSD?) about the current Shakespeare excitements for the 400th anniversary of his own death? Does he have anything to comfort a world weary with books, exhibitions, film festivals, television programming, and other anniversary paraphernalia?

Let’s look to his reflections on his own vocation. Shakespeare’s own depiction of the poet tends towards the sardonic. At the beginning of Timon of Athens a Poet is one of the hangers-on at Timon’s generous table. But the Poet is not an admirable figure. Rather, he is mocked for his overblown and circumlocutory language:

You see this confluence, this great flood of visitors.
I have in this rough work
Shaped out a man
Whom this beneath world doth embrace and hug
With amplest entertainment. My free drift
Halts not particularly but moves itself
In a wide sea of wax. No leveled malice
Infects one comma in the course I hold,
But flies an eagle flight, bold and forth on,
Leaving no tract behind.

Shakespeare statue in Lincoln Park, Chicago by Scott Rettberg. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

In case we do not realize that this is pompous and incomprehensible, his fellow beneficiary, the Painter asks ‘How shall I understand you?’. The Poet presents his poem to a busy Timon, has an argument with Apemantus about whether poetry is all lies, and seems to get little benefit for his pains. At the end of the play he returns to Timon, who treats him with scabrous contempt and drives him away. So much for the Poet’s role in praising, comforting, or even earning himself a living; on every count this Poet fails, and the overall effect is to puncture the claims he, or we, might make for his art. Timon suggests that poets’ claims for their own importance are unearned and narcissistic.

The problem – or perhaps the joy – of WWSD? is that it’s always possible to find an alternative or contradictory viewpoint across the works. Take Europe: Shakespeare may be the great spokesman for either the leave or the remain EU campaigns, depending on whether we go with ‘Naught shall make us rue / If England to itself do rest but true’ (the closing lines of King John) or with the King of France’s wish for ‘neighbourhood and Christian-like accord / In the[…] sweet bosoms’ of England and France. In general, the answer to WWSD? is almost always: he’d do just what I’m already planning to do myself (support migrants, oppose Trump, vote for Brexit, or whatever), but with the verbal magic to make it sound so much better. Perhaps we read Shakespeare rather as we read our chosen newspaper: to have our own opinions and perspectives confirmed rather than challenged. Interpretation and enjoyment is bound up with a kind of confirmation bias.

This intrinsic ambiguity is true for Shakespeare’s own views on poetry. If the Poet in Timon of Athens is a parasite on the emotional and material fortunes of others – and the Poet in Julius Caesar is torn to pieces for his ‘bad verses’ – the poet figure of the Sonnets has a quite different status:

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme (Sonnet 55)

This poet would be worthy of recognition and celebration, even four hundred years after ‘death and all-oblivious enmity’. In the face of our own inevitable extinction, what remains is poetry. We only know Shakespeare died 400 years ago because of the words. Across his plays and poetry, he has amply enacted the memorial premise of the sonnets. So perhaps the answer to WWSD? on the question of his own anniversary celebrations is, he’d accept the honour proudly. Perhaps he would share it with his fellow actors with whom he worked collaboratively for almost two decades (imagine Shakespeare’s Oscar speech). I like to imagine him hugging to himself the secret glee that he had outlived his audacious contemporary Christopher Marlowe so decisively. But above all, he would accept as his due the confirmation of his own bold claim, that his ‘powerful rhyme’ had indeed outlived almost everything else.

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