Shakespeare on the Road to Freedom

Reporter: Anita-Marguerite Butler

Dateline: 10th April, 2016

There is something unbearable about genius. The genius in question at tonight's one-off lecture was William Shakespeare—the subject of even more talk than usual on this, the 400th anniversary of his death in 1616.

The academic world tends to shy away from the ‘genius’ tag in order to imagine Shakespeare as an ordinary man (albeit, gifted) in an Elizabethan/Jacobean world that included many other gifted playwrights—some of whom were Shakespeare's collaborators.

However, there is something about Shakespeare that people tend to love or to hate. There are not many in-betweeners where he is concerned. The speaker tonight, A N Wilson (Andrew Norman)—writer and columnist—fell firmly into the Shakespeare 'love' camp.

His lecture slotted into the Legatum Institute's The Roads to Freedom programme, where the past is used in an attempt to understand and improve on the present through blending the political, cultural, intellectual and historical. Over the course of an hour we were taken on a journey into how Shakespeare has been seen by those who have appropriated him to suit their own country’s ideologies.

Germany, for example, has taken Shakespeare to its collective heart since the late 18th century, with a resurgence of interest, particularly in Hamlet, at the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989—a time that saw weekly anti-government demonstrations in East Berlin, when the people could vote in free elections for the first time.

The Teutonic view saw Shakespeare as an important historian, particularly in his dramatic depictions of the French. Coriolanus was performed in Germany far more than in England and was a favourite of the Nazi movement—reasons for which hardly bear thinking about. The same play found great favour at a performance in New York's Central Park in 1965, chiming as it did with the Civil Rights movement.

In a digression to early English Romantic writers, we learnt that Jane Austen and Beatrix Potter both chose Henry VIII as their favourite play. (It was not mentioned that Shakespeare wrote the play in collaboration with John Fletcher.)

Victor Hugo saw Shakespeare as a French Romantic and, unlike detractors today, did not doubt his authorship. Yet Tolstoy struggled with Shakespeare's lack of doctrinal attributes. Having devoted much of War and Peace to ordinary Russians, he felt the need to end his tome with sombre sermons and lectures as a counterbalance. It was Shakespeare's ambiguity—his refusal to comment or commit—that stuck in Tolstoy's craw. George Orwell likened Tolstoy to King Lear—a sad portrait indeed. Moving to Norway, it was Ibsen's grief that he could write only in his mother tongue and be locked into a language known by so few. Shakespeare, it seems, could spread joy and anxiety in equal measure.

In my favourite part of the lecture, Mr Wilson reminded us that although it is vain to speculate over what Shakespeare thought, and it is true that his plays seem to leave no trace of the author—it is possible to see gossamer threads of the real man in the rawness of the sonnets (shake / spear) and the comedy of Henry the 4th (fall / staff). Shakespeare seemed able to live in what John Keats would later name as negative capability—the ability to bear the weight of doubt without recourse to reason.

In a short session of questions and answers, Mr Wilson felt that modern directorial appropriations and liberties taken with the speaking of lines are fine (as long as verse is obeyed,) because the quality of Shakespeare’s writing allows it where that of a lesser writer would not. And, as he noted, one of the earliest appropriators of Shakespeare for political ends was Queen Elizabeth I, who so aligned herself with Richard II that the play's deposition scene was banned in her own lifetime.

I left this enjoyable evening thinking of my own recent criticism of The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses: yes, the plays can take it, but I stand by my annoyance at the practice of exchanging one character's lines for another’s. I left, too, pondering the joys of reviewing because you sometimes find yourself introduced to an organisation and venue that you would have never known existed.

The Legatum Institute is an international think tank that aims to use the power of the mind/intellect to encourage policy change through publications, research programmes, and lectures. Located in Charles Street, just off Berkeley Square, you can leave and imagine that within the din of modern London Mayfair traffic, nightingales still sing, even if you can't hear them.

(The Legatum Institute will publish A N Wilson’s lecture in full in due course).