Everyone wants to claim Shakespeare as their own: as a champion of the divine right of kings and of democratic human rights; as a secret Catholic subversive and as a sycophant of the Protestant ascendancy; as a conservative advocate of royal privilege and as a forerunner of the coming parliamentarian uprising; as an upstart plebeian entrepreneur and as a secret aristocratic courtier masquerading under his pseudonym.
I for one would not wish to cannibalise his memory. How much could the son of the Mayor of a provincial English town in the sixteenth century have in common with Marxism? He was not a pamphleteer but an artist with a unique and uncanny ability to penetrate deep into the soul of whatever character crossed his stage. Who else could start with the caricatured racial stereotype of a miserly vengeful Jewish moneylender or a hot-blooded black man manipulated into murdering his wife, and yet enter so utterly and completely into their psyche?
Can Shakespeare really speak to us four hundred years later as he did to his contemporaries? In his comedies, not in my opinion. Humour tends to cater to the secret prejudices peculiar to each generation; and for all their brilliance, these elaborate operettas of cross-dressing, mistaken identity, excruciating puns and multiple marriages seem to me very dated period pieces. Tragedy, however, strikes a chord in every generation, and the relentless cycle of war, death and bereavement in Shakespeare's tragedies has the same timeless devastating impact today as then.
Shakespeare was an actor and the manager of a theatre company. He deployed his talents to fit the material needs of his time. His very quality of empathy left him impervious to the demands of partisan allegiances. He wrote to entertain the crowds, yes, but also to pander to the commands of the royal patrons who sponsored his productions. Macbeth, for instance, thrilled its audiences no less than any Stephen King horror movie, but also shamelessly flattered the new Scottish King James, who was soon to instigate a very real country-wide witch-hunting hysteria. To this end he cast as a virtuous man Macbeth's actual accomplice in regicide, James' ancestor Banquo, and helped to stoke up the mass frenzy of revenge against the bin Laden of his day Guy Fawkes, and his sponsors the Jesuits with their advocacy of equivocation as a tactic under police interrogation.
Wherever they appear in his plays, the common masses are depicted as raucous, fickle and malleable. In Julius Caesar they are swayed within minutes from one extreme to the other by the oratory of Brutus and the manipulative rhetoric of Mark Antony. And yet that same Shakespeare was equally capable of literally stripping King Lear naked and sending him raving into a storm-soaked wilderness, accompanied only by a clown and a blind madman.
School teachers drone on pedantically about these plays as if they were mere regurgitations from the ancient Greeks. The idea that they are all about great heroes brought to ruin with inexorable inevitability by their own fatal flaws completely misses the mark. The agonising dilemmas faced by Lear, Brutus, Hamlet, Henry V, Romeo and Juliet and many more are those arising from the irreconcilable clash between the growing aspirations of the individual and the rigid demands of the existing state.
These plays could not have been written either a century earlier or later; they could only have grown out of the soil of a society only one generation away from civil war. And they encompass all the poetry, passion and intensity of a society on the brink of revolution.