‘Most students away from these UK shores adore Shakespeare.
In his homeland, unless you catch them young, a dislike gets deep under the skin and stays engrained, enduring wind and weather.’ Ben Crystal [a]
Welcome to my world …
Claiming some kind of unanswerable ownership of Shakespeare based on his nationality is the last thing on my mind, akin to the idiocy of him being some kind of class signifier (or adopting the Turkish hero, St George, as England’s patron). There’s a frustrating, illogical irony to these bigoted attitudes which I have blogged before about. And, bear in mind, I was not born in England.
Still, I’ve lived most of my life in the UK. And I’ve had a gut feeling for years that Shakespeare is more popular abroad, especially in the US. That’s partly influenced by where the views on this blog tend to come from – given that a significant part of the UK views will be my own small group of students, it’s still outweighed by US views.
Frankly, I’m very jealous of the countries that appear to actually enjoy the bard.
This summer, I decided to run a very unscientific poll of /r/shakespeare during August, to discover how international the subreddit is. It’s where I get most of my Shakespeare chat fix: remember that my Dearest Partner of Greatness isn’t a fan; nor are my family or most of my friends; at school you can count on one hand the number of people – staff and students – who would opt to have a conversation about Shakespeare. I travel a lot on public transport, not having wanted or needed a car for several years, and I’m the kind of annoying person who asks people what they are reading. I can’t help that – the written word is my life. But I have never come across anyone reading Shakespeare in public.
So here’s what came out of a simple request, under the inevitable heading, ‘What country, friends, is this?‘ …
If you drill a little closer, thirty-two of the US states are represented in that figure of sixty, and for those who are interested in the UK figure of nine, it can be broken down as follows:
- England: 5
- Northern Ireland: nil
- Scotland: 2
- Wales: 2
California and Virginia boasted more members than England.
Again, this isn’t scientific. It’s a tiny sample: 100 out of 16,000 Redditors who are group members (and the regulars are far fewer in number). But discrepancies in national population sizes don’t explain it. Judging by the appalled reaction of people I know and students too, when I tell them I am on Reddit, perhaps the platform is more popular in some countries than others. Next stop, perhaps, is to conduct a similar poll on Twitter?
But paint it however you want, it does feel like we as a nation have a bizarre disdain, verging on contempt, for the guy almost universally regarded as the greatest writer ever. A writer, moreover, who very conveniently writes in our mother tongue, and about our history – who, according to The British Council – has been translated into over 100 languages, including Klingon, for God’s sake. A writer whose attributable contributions to our everyday argot are unmatched, according to the OED.
Again, don’t mistake this for some kind of jingoistic, nationalistic post. Especially not in these troubled times when Britain is dying on its feet. Regular readers will know my ambivalent attitude to being British.
Shakespeare is NOT the answer to our national convulsions (although Brexiters might benefit from a play or two) . But the closed mindset which rejects his works out of hand is a symptom of the disease that is ravaging us …
[a] Ben Crystal, The British Council, 11 February 2014 (link here)
6 thoughts on “Girdling the earth …”
Oh yes, here in the States we have festivals centered on Shakespeare. Many of our libraries will also spend time with Shakespeare Star Wars and puppet shows of his plays to introduce children to literature. Too bad that after childhood-adolescence literature starts to drop off in exploration for many kids. By the time they graduate high school most have turned away from the humanities altogether.
I enjoy Shakespeare but take him with a grain of salt. Then again I probably have more knowledge of the political atmosphere he lived in and the biases within the sources he used than the general US population. That is not to brag but most here simply are not interested in British history outside of how it affected us. Anyway having an awareness of these factors actually inspires me to read/watch his work multiple times It is the layers he creates that keep me coming back for more and a good author includes layers for that purpose.
Here, Shakespeare is often seen as something for the elite, which always infuriates me. And children are conditioned to fear and dislike Shakespeare, and to resent having to study him. Mostly by their parents –
it’s as if they want their children to fail.
That’s an utterly depressing mindset.
I completely agree with you, Colleen – the plays (like all classic examples of the written word) repay our coming back to them at different stages in your life, because we get something different from them each time.
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That is a depressing mindset. It is similar to how in the U.S., Marx and other social writers are demonized, even the term “liberal arts” to many means colleges are turning kids into “Marxists”. When my daughter was in high school I had her read Marx and Engels and discussed it with her. I also had her look at the ideas that Mussolini put forth because I wanted her to see the differences and similarities. Most students here have no idea who Mussolini was.
Shakespeare is treated more as entertainment and mostly only surface layers of his writings are discussed in schools. I.e. Macbeth was a weakling who let Lady Macbeth rule him when it is so much more complex. I think that is just as sad as treating it as something to fear or dislike because then kids get bored. It was not until I looked further into the societal issues of England that I started considering further layers into Shakespeare’s writings.
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Regarding my second comment: Don’t get me wrong, Mussolini was a horrific person.
I think one of the worst things we can do nowadays is stay in self-affirming bubbles where we only read what agrees with our worldview. There’s no scope for growth in that.
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I concur 100%
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