The Bard Without Revisionism

Video originally posted on my YouTube channel.

In the just over four hundred years since the Bard of Avon’s passing on April 23, 1616, William Shakespeare’s popularity has only continued to grow. With the rise of the Internet, his myth, once confined predominantly to the English-speaking world and those societies most deeply impacted by European culture, now extends to acolytes around the world.

Image of Cook County Jail "Othello" rap performance
“Othello” rap performance at Cook County Jail https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2407032/Hip-hop-adaptation-Shakespeares-Othello-performed-prison.html#v-2637681092001

An interesting example of this is the “Bard Behind Bars” movement. This program, and others like, brings Shakespeare to prison inmates around the world. This image, for example, is from a rap version of Othello performed at the Cook County Jail in Chicago, Illinois. Some prisons even mount fully staged productions acted by the prisoners themselves.

Re-imagining The Bard

Ironically…

While a general appreciation of the Bard’s unique talents continues to grow beyond the ivy-covered walls of academia, an ever-widening gap exists between traditional scholars and an increasingly postmodern culture. Despite their enthusiasm, these new fans often myopically pass over Shakespeare’s deeper insights trying to modernize his writing. He is recast as an apologist for ideas that bear little resemblance to his more complex view of human nature.

Image of George Bernard Shaw
George Bernard Shaw, Nobel laureate in Literature 1925 Nobel Foundation,
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:George_Bernard_Shaw_1925.jpg

To remedy this situation, I suggest we, as Shakespeare scholars, step away somewhat from a tendency among some towards what George Bernard once sneeringly called “Bardolatry.” Such uncritical worship and an overly literary approach to Shakespeare’s writing is the problem. Culture and historical context still matter.

The Bard of Avon: A Man Of The Theatre

We must remember when approaching the Bard that William Shakespeare was not a man of letters. He was a man of the theatre with the unique perspective and qualities that art form engenders.

William Shakespeare was a largely self-educated commoner. Though literate, he had only a modest grammar school education through his father’s standing as a local public official. He learned his craft on the public stages of Elizabethan London. In the Hurley-burly atmosphere of that unique community, he undoubtedly copied the better educated writers of his day while honing his observation, mimicry, and oratory skills as an actor.

Image of Shakesperean stage performance
Shakespeare Stage, Image by David Mark from Pixabay

As Philip Howard reminds us in the London Times article, “Antidotes to Bardolatry:”

The Shakespearean repertory system was as frantic as producing a weekly color mag (or a daily TV soap opera).​ They mounted a different play every afternoon, six days a week, staging as many as 30 different plays a year, many of them continuously updated, improved and improvised, and they never repeated even the most popular play more than four or five times in one month.​ The actors (and the playwrights) had far less time for rehearsal, perfectionism, and prima-donnaism than their modern successors.

To fully appreciate what Shakespeare really accomplished, we must always bear in mind:

  • that theatre, at its core, is a collaborative and pragmatic art,
  • that play scripts, whatever their literary value, are primarily vehicles for live collaborative story-telling, and…​
  • that even his sonnets and other poetry, likely written as alternative sources of income during periods when the theaters were closed due to plague or political unrest, derived, at least in part, from lessons learned in writing for the stage.

Poetry For The Stage And Page

This does not in any way minimize the legitimate literary value of Shakespeare’s contemporaries or of the Bard himself. The poetry of the stage serves a quite different purpose than that created primarily for the page.

While literary poetry seeks to build an emotional connection between the poet and the reader directly through the mental imagery painted by the words themselves, poetry for the stage uses the music of dramatic language, rhyme, and meter to enhance the immersive visual imagery playing out live before an audience. It also provided direct mnemonic assistance to the performers themselves in retaining the vast amounts of material they were expected to have committed to memory for recall at any given time.

Image of Native American flute player
Native American Flute Player, Image by cstibi from Pixabay

It is no accident that cultures with a strong oral tradition frequently preserve their history in metered rhyme. It is also likely that the players of Shakespeare’s day embraced the poetic for similar reasons. Shakespeare, likewise, simply learned to master the tools at his disposal to their greatest effect.

In the end, the Bard of Avon is not so fragile that he can never be challenged. Neither does he need excessive modernizing or some witty re-imagining to make him comprehensible or meaningful to modern “woke” audiences. He speaks as he speaks, presenting humanity as he found it in his own day and as it continues to exist today. He truly wrote, as Ben Jonson assures us, “… not for an age, but for all time.”

Bust of William Shakespeare from the Folger Shakespeare library.

Check out my William Shakespeare Biography page for more on his unique life and surroundings.

Reference Used:

Howard, P. (1990). Antidotes to bardolatry. The Times (London, England).

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