By Alan O’Riordan
“Oh shut up, Baldrick – you’d laugh at a Shakespeare comedy.”
THAT line, delivered by Rowan Atkinson playing the Elizabethan Edmund Blackadder in the TV comedy, Blackadder, made sense to me as a 14-year-old.
At school, we were reading Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1 and laughing, not at the jokes, but at the very idea that they could be considered such. Prince Hal’s putdowns to Falstaff — “Ye fat guts”, “These lies are like their father that begets them: gross as a mountain, open, palpable” — were OK, but nothing as spicy as Elaine Benes’s lines in TV’s Seinfeld.
But we were mistaken to expect these quips to leap off the page. William Shakespeare was a stage craftsman: his comedies’ humour comes from situation, character, context, movement, expression, delivery and reception, as much as the words themselves.
I realised this several years later, at Corcadorca’s wonderful A Midsummer Night’s Dream: I was huddled under trees in Fitzgerald’s Park in Cork, laughing along with everyone else at the rehearsal scenes involving Peter Quince and his band of buffoonish mechanicals.
But even if we are taught Shakespeare in the wrong context — and through remarkably persistent Victorian ideas about character — that teaching still has benefit 450 years after his birth. If we pay him due heed at school, if we listen properly, we find later that we are ready to join in one of the most vibrant conversations in our culture: our continued engagement with Shakespeare.
If, in all our afternoons of rote-learned essays and quotations, we have opened our ears, we will have left school with an ability to listen through the off-putting strangeness of Shakespeare’s early-modern phrasing and his occasional verbosity.
What do we find on the other side? A timeless artist, an expert in human affairs and language. Like no other playwright in history, Shakespeare made phrases fully alive to all the potentials of dramatic speech and situation: in every line, we are free to question each Janus-faced word, to interrogate every motivation, examine the context. To ask: ‘Who is speaking?’ ‘What is and is not being said?’ ‘Who is or is not replying?’ Even when he seems too obscure and complex, we can ask: ‘Why is this character being too obscure and complex?’ Usually, there is a good reason, as when Lady Macbeth welcomes King Duncan with the confounded knot of language: “All our service, In every point twice done and then done double, Were poor and single business to contend, Against those honours deep and broad wherewith, Your majesty loads our house.”
We might well scratch our heads, until we realise the words are spoken by a person plotting to kill Duncan — she cannot be straight with him and, like any liar, evades and overcomplicates.
Shakespeare’s powers of metaphor and concision are unmatched, but they do not necessarily translate into precision. That is what makes him endlessly debatable. Without being vague (or not often), his language is open to the question: ‘Could it mean this?’ The answer is sometimes ‘no’, and then a production can fail, but more often the answer is ‘yes’, or ‘maybe’, and that is an open door to the interpretive artist, one that never closes. I’ve seen Macbeth the drug dealer, Macbeth the South American dictator, a Second World War Othello, Richard III as fascist, Hamlet as modern Manhattanite. Yet, these are only the most obvious reinventions. Even if he is played in doublet and hose, at the level of line there is endless opportunity for reshaping.
The essence of Hamlet, for instance, is that of a man wrestling with two concepts of being: is it better to suffer misfortune and trust to God, or “take arms against a sea of troubles”? But around this essence, generations have found a way of seeing themselves. For Victorians, Hamlet’s flaw was Romantic over-contemplation, a dereliction of their virtues of action and ‘character’. But for us, he could be a 30-year-old arts graduate living with his mother, is paralysed by possibilities, unconvinced by duty and reluctant to constrict his personality via one determining action (like working for a multinational).
Sure, it’s a glib description, but it shows how Shakespeare’s characters are evergreen. We’re unlikely to go around pondering whether we should kill our uncle, yet Hamlet is mysterious and recognisable, strange and familiar, in endless ways. Every age is condemned to perform the Shakespeare of their time — that’s why we can never be done with him.
© Irish Examiner Ltd.