Bard Versus Bard

Shakespeare changed the world, but he was no revolutionary—sexual or otherwise

In the four centuries since its first appearance, the body of work called “the plays of Shakespeare” has been elevated to the status of a kind of secular scripture that has significantly influenced the way that English-speaking and, increasingly, worldwide culture understands what might be called, rather breathtakingly, “the meaning of life.” Taken together, the plays offer a panoramic portrayal of human nature, the sources and varieties of human impulse and action, the heights and depths of nobility and depravity, and the possibilities, in this life at least, of redemption and perdition.

This is not to claim for it the status of actual Scripture. Few people, as far as we know, rear their children as practising Shakespearians, allow themselves to kill or accept martyrdom in His name, or propose that civil law should be founded on a selection of His precepts—although one might do worse! Dr. Johnson complained that no coherent system of morality could be found in the plays and, while characters profess the whole gamut of beliefs as to the existence of a providential deity and a life hereafter, the plays neither confirm nor deny any of them. Interestingly, almost no characters at the point of death seem to feel themselves to be on the threshold of the next life, for better or worse. Horatio may call for flights of angels to sing Hamlet to his rest. Hamlet merely says, “The rest is silence.”

The question of how and to what extent Shakespeare has “changed everything” is a profound and complex one. In what ways have billions of people, now and in preceding centuries, in hundreds of linguistic cultures, been led to think and feel and speak and act differently than they might have done in his absence? Has the influence of Shakespeare on human consciousness been relatively consistent across cultures and times, or so various as to be incoherent? Is that influence relatively benign, so that we would be poorer—in imagination, in ideals, in moral clarity—without it? Or might it be, if not malign exactly, the bearer of some distinctly problematic ideological biases?

These questions call for a searching and thoughtful book. Unfortunately, in How Shakespeare Changed Everything Stephen Marche and his publisher have contented themselves with a rather hasty Book of Awesome, Believe-It-or-Not Facts and Claims, ranging from the infliction of a plague of starlings on the United States (as part of a scheme to domesticate every bird in the Bard) to the prevalence of skulls in shopping malls, the popularity of the name Jessica, the election of Barack Obama and the spread of recreational sex. Many of his facts are merely compilations of the generally known, while some of his claims are exceedingly dubious—especially those about sex. And the question of how the body of work known as Shakespeare has permeated what Raymond Williams called our “structures of feeling” and our sense of the meaning of life is hardly addressed at all.

This quite short book is certainly full of interesting and provocative material. Some of its ten chapters are a good deal more substantial than others. The chapter on language reminds us that there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of words that, if they were not actually coined by Shakespeare, at least appeared for the first time in the printed texts. Equally, his phrasings of scores, even hundreds, of perceptions and ideas and feelings have become staples of the way we think, in English anyway, embedded in the structure of our consciousness. As Marche points out, politicians of every stripe have found support for their ideological positions, and orators have drawn on him to articulate every point of view. (Churchill’s immortal “Fight on the beaches … finest hour … never was so much owed by so many to so few” is consciously and cunningly founded on the rhetoric of Henry V.)

Marche also shows persuasively how, in Othello, Shylock, Romeo and Juliet, and Hamlet, the plays launched icons of a black man in a white world, a Jew in a Christian world, teenagers in an adult world and a lost soul in any world that have established themselves as the brands and shaped perceptions of those conditions. And the assassination (a word first used by W.S.) of Abraham Lincoln may even have been “caused” by the self–identification of John Wilkes Booth, son of Junius Brutus Booth and brother of actor Edwin, with the leading assassin of Julius Caesar.

Here we are getting closer to the heart of the question of what Shakespeare changed and how. The claim about Booth and Brutus is but one example of the pervasive ways in which Shakespeare has furnished us with prototypes of human behaviour and identity that would have crystallized differently, or not at all, without him. Young men would have been moody and melancholic and manic anyway, but Hamlet has provided a particular model of this posture, complete with costume, accessories and a lot of good lines. Literally dozens of Shakespeare’s characters have become, in the strict sense of the word, role models for a spectrum of conditions and relationships, giving a local habitation and a name to the many parts we all play in our time. And these models are perennially reinforced by their endless replication in subsequent drama, fiction and film. It is this modelling of human types that led Harold Bloom, rather extravagantly, to claim for Shakespeare “the invention of the human.”

Nowhere is this shaping of behaviour and identity more marked than in Shakespeare’s depiction of lovers, but here I think Marche most seriously misrepresents the ethos of the plays. In the chapter titled “The Beast with Two Backs,” he credits Shakespeare, more or less explicitly, with the invention of the sexual. He ascribes to him the “climate of permissiveness” that blossomed in the 20th century—including the normalization of “homosexuality and every other kind of freakiness.” (Excuse me?) He calls him a “sex god,” “an enthusiastic participant in this festival of carnality” that was the theatre of his time, and a compulsive purveyor of “dirty bits”—the term is revealing. He even refers to Othello, offhandedly, as serving up “hot sex with a black dude.” The overall impression is that Shakespeare’s plays luridly promote a general attitude of licentiousness. They do not.

What they do provide, undeniably, is an incalculable impetus to the now pervasive idea that the selection of a mate is solely the business of the two parties concerned and rests on the basis of mutual attraction. Shakespeare did not invent the idea of falling in love, but his plays have unquestionably helped to elevate, and perhaps democratize, that experience into the model and ideal of the mating process. He has also contributed to it a particular colouration and flavour that might be described as the lyrical-rapturous.

In their representations of sexuality, however, the plays are quite surprisingly conservative. True, there are many characters who engage in lewd punning and salacious innuendo, and some who express a pervasive cynicism about sex and women. But most of these characters are portrayed more or less discreditably, and as much as anything it is their sexual cynicism that discredits them. Yes, Mercutio’s coarse sexual punning is not apparently held against him. But Hamlet’s “do you think I meant country matters?” is not among his most engaging moments. And Iago’s corrosive attitude to “the beast with two backs” is close to the essence of his malevolence.

In recruiting Shakespeare for sexual freedom, Marche speaks of him as never missing a chance to mock Puritans, and cites the case of Angelo in Measure for Measure. But rather than mocking Angelo, the play presents almost tragically a man who, having vaunted his own sexual discipline, discovers a raging susceptibility to desire that propels him to what he thinks is rape and murder. Unlike the really tragic characters, he is spared the consequences of his bad intents, and given instead a painful lesson in being all too human.

Far from encouraging jolly rogering, a recurring motif in the plays is the expression of a revulsion against carnality, “honeying and making love over the nasty sty.” And this mood of revulsion is not only a sign of malaise in particular characters, but can be heard in Shakespeare’s own voice, most explicitly in Sonnet 129: “The expense of spirit in a waste of shame.” Marche grotesquely calls this poem “a meditation on semen” (what?) and sums up its conclusion as “why do I always want to go to sleep right after I orgasm?” Surely, if it is anything, this poem about “lust in action” is a shudder of disgust at joyless fucking. If Marche wants to find a more congenial literary advocate of jovial swiving, let him look to his Chaucer!

In point of fact, almost all of Shakespeare’s lovers are scrupulously chaste until properly married, and proclaim the fact quite ardently. Florizel in The Winter’s Tale speaks for them in assuring Perdita that “my desires run not before mine honour, nor my lusts burn hotter than my faith.” True, Troilus and Cressida are ushered into bed by her leering uncle Pandarus, but the play can hardly be said to applaud the liaison. Romeo and Juliet they are not. True, Claudio has got his Juliet pregnant in Measure for Measure—and comes close to being executed for it by Angelo—but he insists they are as good as married anyway, while Juliet acknowledges it as a sin.

For the rest, they are spirited, witty, ardent, playful and will enjoy sex a lot when they get around to it. But in the plays they are never allowed to lay an unchaste hand on each other. As for Antony and Cleopatra, they are ravenous lovers right enough, but half the time Antony would concur with the Roman verdict that he is “a strumpet’s fool.”

Far from promoting “the fire i’ the blood,” Shakespeare’s plays tend to depict sex as dangerously incendiary, when not vigilantly regulated. And this is close to the core of what I think is the pervasive ethos of the whole corpus, namely that there are malignant demons lurking in the worst of us, and the capacity for reckless weakness in everyone. In the tragedies this combination is catastrophic. In the comedies, and in the last so-called romances, it can be resisted and turned to redemption. But it never goes away. And the plays of Shakespeare have inculcated this perception of the human condition perhaps more persuasively than Scripture itself.

If this is indeed what Shakespeare’s plays have contributed to our sense of life, has it really “changed everything” as Stephen Marche declares? Like Dickens, Shakespeare seems to offer as his most irresistible effect the redeeming transformation of the individual heart. He does not—could not?—see beyond this to the possibility of a transformed social order. The idea was not unthinkable; the question: “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” had been asked two centuries earlier, and would be asked again by the more radical adherents of Oliver Cromwell. True, a somewhat chastened King Lear urges his fellow royals to “expose thyself to feel what wretches feel, that thou mayst shake the superflux to them and show the heavens more just.” But beyond suggesting that aristocratic rule might try being a bit more considerate toward the poor, does this rueful acknowledgement of the world’s injustice really only ensure that everything stays the same?

At the end of what is conventionally regarded as Shakespeare’s grand summing up, The Tempest, the patricians graciously exchange forgiveness. Ferdinand and Miranda, who have been revealed chastely playing chess—a long way from the mating move—will be married, and will return to Italy as rulers of a united Milan and Naples. For Prospero, “every third thought shall be my grave.” As for Caliban, the “savage and deformed slave,” he will be left on the island to learn from his mistakes—the desire to mate with Miranda and the impulse to overthrow her father’s colonial tyranny. Shakespeare gives him, as a final vow, not Malvolio’s “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you,” but rather the properly chastened, “I’ll be wise hereafter and seek for grace.”