The Case Against Shakespeare

Director of the upcoming Cymbeline: The Musical, Joe Venable implores, hypocritically, that we read and stage less Shakespeare

Joe Venable

"Shakespeare has got miles out of hand." The Globe Theatre, LondonPixabay

We need to read less Shakespeare. As someone who loves English literature, that might seem a strange opinion. And indeed, I am fond of reading and discussing Shakespeare with others who, weirdly, are almost always white middle-class men – much like myself.

The problem is, Shakespeare has got miles out of hand. The other day I went into Heffers, Cambridge’s premier bookstore, which has three shelves of drama (quite sad in itself, given that the store has approximately four million shelves of books). Guess how many of those three shelves are given over to Shakespeare? Yep. Two and a half.

Our Shakes-mania is so long-established we barely even notice how bonkers it is. Camdram informs me there are no fewer than seven Shakespeare-based shows being staged in Cambridge this term. Conversely, I can’t see a single play by any other author from the period 1500-1700 for the entire term.

“...let us someday have musicals of Aphra Behn, Bertolt Brecht and Katori Hall...”

I will admit to being a frightful hypocrite here, since this term I’m, ahem, writing and directing Cymbeline: The Musical. In my defence, I would have loved to write Volpone: The Musical – but would anybody come? Here we see the vicious cycle of Shakespeare – because he is a ‘brand-name,’ writers know if they parody or adapt him, people will watch. But this only makes the Shakespeare brand even stronger.

But think how many wonderful writers are being obscured by this bewildering public appetite for one Elizabethan playwright – Marlowe, Jonson, John Lyly, Frances Beaumont, Aphra Behn – every one of them has a play better than most of Shakespeare’s. And the eclipse isn’t confined to the period – that one half-shelf in Heffers has to hold everything from Elizabeth Inchbald to Henrik Ibsen to August Wilson. A whole gang of top-drawer dramatists can’t get into a bookstore, even one as cavernous as Heffers.

Sad as it is to say, the shadow of Shakespeare is probably decreasing public appetite for drama on the whole. Why aren’t people going to the theatre? Blame one bad experience with Two Gentlemen Of Verona on a school trip aged twelve. Why won’t people pick up a play-script and read? It reminds them of Year 9, when an over-zealous teacher decided to give everyone Henry V “for a change”. Shakespeare is now most people’s first taste of ‘proper’ drama, and whatever the opposite of a gateway drug is, Antony and Cleopatra is that.

If we let it, our obsession with Shakespeare will only snowball. As long as he continues to be the only playwright anyone ever reads, he’ll only get more influential, crowding out any other writer. Milton, a poet read by no-one who isn’t a nerd, has had a startling influence on our language despite not getting the leg-up Shakespeare does. How many more minor writers might have made their mark more deeply, if we hadn’t all been too high on Hamlet to notice?


Mountain View

Are we all studying for a degree in knowing absolutely nothing?

In the real world, Shakespeare today makes limited sense. The language is outdated and the jokes get lost. Virtually every modern production abandons the iambic pentameter in which Shakespeare meticulously crafted his plays and delivers them without rhythm, “naturalistically”, something that would doubtless have baffled the Bard. And let’s not forget that Shakespeare’s plays are racist and a misogynist – admittedly in a time when few knew better – but still making countless jokes at the expense of Jews, shrews and black people.

Here at Cambridge, every English student spends an entire term on Shakespeare, with a mandatory paper purely on him. If our English Faculty is really serious about diversifying towards less canonical authors, could there be a better start than doing away with the white male playwright who currently dominates our dramatic landscape? Axing the Shakespeare paper could open up space for many less celebrated writers – and of course, he could still be studied heavily within the Renaissance paper. There is no evidence at all that Shakespeare would mind, nor that his output would suffer as a consequence.

To break a vicious cycle, we need radical change. Cambridge could lead the way in diversifying its syllabus, broadening its lens and, at the expense of one white British male, shining a light on a plethora of brilliant writers worldwide who’ve helped make the English language what it is today.

In the meantime, we should of course all come and watch Cymbeline: The Musical. But let us someday have musicals of Aphra Behn, Bertolt Brecht and Katori Hall, so blissfully readable that they spill to fill every shelf of Heffers. And Shakespeare too – though just a little less. If this be madness, yet there’s method in’t.