Who owns Shakespeare? The answer to that, of course, is nobody and all of us. Shakespeare may be English but try telling that to the Germans who love the plays. Try telling that to Hollywood, which has taken Shakespeare’s plays and re-imagined them for the movies.
They are our gift that is gifted back to us time and again by the rest of the world, as the Globe to Globe season proved back in 2012 when Shakespeare came to us in Arabic, in British Sign Language, in Japanese and many more languages. As Dennis Kelly, emeritus professor of Trinity College Dublin, has said: “In English Hamlet is a series of well-known quotations, in Chinese it is a new play.”
Bardolatry, a term coined by George Bernard Shaw, who wasn’t Shakespeare’s biggest fan, didn’t take root until the 18th century when the idea of Shakespeare as genius and national poet became established. Our love of Shakespeare has spawned endless revivals of the plays in theatres all over the country, and it has also spawned trinkets at London’s Globe Theatre and babygros at the Royal Shakespeare Company shop.
Shakespeare is no longer simply a great cultural icon but also a lucrative British cultural brand: the Burberry of the cultural sector. Shakespeare has not only been a hugely successful cultural export but also part of the soft power that the UK uses to gain influence.
The potential danger in this is that Shakespeare becomes a by-word for a particular kind of Britishness, turning the plays into the cultural equivalent of ye olde worlde fudge shoppe, something that presents a false and often nostalgic view of Britain to the world. But there is no single authentic version of any of the plays and there is no Shakespeare rule book that tells us how they should be done.
Shakespeare is no longer simply a great cultural icon but also a lucrative British cultural brand: the Burberry of the cultural sector
Because there is no such thing as an authentic Shakespeare production, not even when the Globe explores original practices. The plays are always up for grabs. Every time they are given new and vivid life – their hearts are kept beating, their lungs kept in full
working order – every time they are translated into different languages and cultures, and a new generation discovers the plays for themselves, they are ensured longevity.
Shakespeare would have long been relegated to a theatrical footnote if new generations didn’t take the work and make it their own.
One of the pleasures of my theatregoing career has been the way that plays which reflect the world view of a man and his collaborators living in the late 16th and 17th centuries have been shown to speak directly to us now because they are vital and eminently malleable. They can survive the most misguided productions and they can be seen entirely afresh when presented in unexpected ways.
Which brings me, as I suspect some of you may already have guessed, to Dominic Cavendish’s assertion in the Daily Telegraph that Shakespeare is in danger of being “cancelled” by a “woke” generation of artists and theatregoers who are intent on diverse, gender-flipping casting and who frown upon plays penned by a writer who was “a product of a patriarchal, Anglo-centric, proto-colonial, age”.
Cavendish’s view is also that the plays are imperilled because some of the attitudes expressed within them may prove unacceptable to a new generation.
This is a pronouncement that comes straight out of ye olde worlde cultural fudge shoppe. It doesn’t even concur with the evidence. Generations of directors haven’t ceased staging Shrew because it is misogynistic, or put a blue pencil through the whole of Merchant because its characters express anti-Semitic statements. Instead they grapple with those plays, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.
The current generation does that no less than its predecessors. The Taming of the Shrew has been experiencing a bit of a comeback as directors ask how it might talk to current gender relationships.
Cavendish argues that in the face of greater diversity, “a traditionally cast production is now a rarity, ever more unthinkable”. But even if this pronouncement was true, which it is not – Jami Rogers’ analysis on the Play’s the Thing of 26 productions since 2016 points to the fact that 76% of the leading roles were still played by men – what exactly is meant by a traditionally cast production?
Because British productions of Shakespeare have looked and sounded a particular way for the last century or more doesn’t mean that they are more traditional or top trying other approaches using different languages, different casting and different modes of production.
The moment Shakespeare’s plays will become endangered is the moment the Shakespeare police put up fences around them and erect “hands off” signs. But for the moment Shakespeare is doing just fine, and will continue to do so as long as we don’t claim there is a right or wrong way to stage the plays.
Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest column every Monday at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner