This week’s quotation is from Germaine Greer, Shakespeare (Past Masters series), (Oxford: OUP, 1986), p.75
Classroom experience tells me that [massive generalization] today’s students are disinclined to think for themselves [/massive generalization]. It’s part of the resistance to Shakespeare that seems to be coded into some pupils’ DNA (and another day I might talk about the ‘generational’ thing), but we see it with other texts. A while back, in Manchester, I taught the short film ‘The Virus’ – which I personally think is excellent:
– but it was met with howls of anger (only slight exaggeration) from students who couldn’t work out what had happened, why, and what might happen next. Watch the film, if you have under ten minutes, and then ask yourself if the main character is alive or dead at the end. Then, ask yourself why or how the answer couldn’t be obvious to 14/15 year-olds. This happened with TWO classes. I wasn’t just taken aback: I was worried. Not least because they thought it was ‘rubbish‘ because they couldn’t figure it out.
To be fair, this probably isn’t new – had my students been alive at the time, and in possession of the attention span required to read it, they would have been part of the contemporary outcry over the ending to Great Expectations. But Dickens‘ audience wanted their theories confirmed or refuted. In 2018, it just seems endemic that people have no theories. They just want to be told what to think … and that scares me.
Who do I blame?
I mostly blame – and having recently read Neil Postman’s influential Amusing Ourselves to Death (Penguin, 1986), of course I would – television and cinema, media that are increasingly designed to be consumed passively and in small chunks punctuated by advertisements. Music, canned laughter and other cues serve to signal how we ought to respond at given moments, because people simply cannot figure it out for themselves!
This links to my ongoing exploration of the reasons why people might be ‘Shakespeare intolerant’. Ironically, it’s one of the reasons why I find his plays so worthy of repeat reading / viewing, and whilst it’s very early to say so, why I have occasionally alluded to the fact that the Ponytail Shakespeare read-through might happen again in a few years. God knows what I will call it then!
My point is that Shakespeare is ambiguous, perhaps deliberately so, and therefore open to multiple interpretations.
You DO have to think for yourself. And your interpretation of a play might, perhaps WILL, change over time. Neither is less valid, but simply represents a response based on your life experiences. I think King Lear is an excellent example. Until you have ageing parents, I can’t see how you can FEEL – not understand – what’s going on. And then, once you ARE an ageing parent yourself, you gain a fresh insight.
So to Richard II …
Richard seems a very daring play, but perhaps it is another indication of Shakespeare’s motivations as a popular writer – there were at least four other versions of Richard’s story written at around this point in Elizabeth’s reign, so the public clearly wanted the story. It also heavily suggests Shakespeare’s popularity and/or favour at court. The play’s association with the Earl of Essex’s ludicrous attempted rebellion in 1601 is well documented (his supporters paid to have it staged the night before, hoping to stir popular sentiment). And it was one of several plays Shakespeare wrote which fell foul of the censors, and yet we have no record of this ‘serial offender’ ever paying a personal price for these transgressions.
Here’s this week QotW …
The historical dramatist had worse to fear than the sneers of the literati. No play would be licensed if it were thought to meddle in matters of politics or religion. When The Book of Thomas More was submitted to the Master of the Revels, he stipulated that the scene of the insurrection of the Lombards be deleted from the play. The deposition scene was removed from Richard II both on stage and in the printed quartos by about 1597, and the 1600 quarto of Henry IV Part II contained extensive revisions. A comparison of the 1594 quarto of Henry VI Part II with the version in the First Folio show that all possible references to the Irish question, Elizabeth’s legitimacy, rebellion, or to particular noble families had at some stage been deleted from the text.
The licensing authorities could sniff out political and religious allegory in the most unlikely places.
Daring, then, but also a fascinating play. I think it the most linguistically skilful of all, and the most probing in terms of questions of leadership, succession, etc that remain relevant today. But is it less fashionable? Less ‘relatable’? Less something else? Or do others – our modern ‘licensing authorities’ – still regard it as dangerously thought-provoking to the untamed and potentially unruly? The conspiracy theorists out there will delight to know that our exam boards between them (AQA at GCSE and OCR at A Level) don’t offer us the opportunity to study it. If it has fallen out of favour for innocent reasons, I think one contributory factor could be because unless you take the History plays as a whole it offers little judgement of the two main antagonists. Sure, as the play progresses our empathy for Richard increases in direct proportion to our dislike of Bolingbroke, but that’s not quite the same thing.
If you don’t know the play, come with me over the next few weeks as I re-read it – it will ‘study deserving’, as Lear’s Edmund might say …