Australian comedian Jim Jefferies, in response to the rape allegations against Bill Cosby, highlighted something he referred to as ‘The Fame to Blame’ ratio. ‘The more talented you are, the more likely you are to get away with a crime’, he aptly points out, drawing our attention to figures such as Charlie Chaplin, Elvis, and Michael Jackson. Being dead also helps. When the controversy around Jackson’s activities at The Neverland Ranch was at its peak, we were all quite rightly appalled. Since his death, however, few of us remain who first think ‘paedophile’ when we hear his name, compared to those who start humming Blame it on the Boogie.
It’s a natural reaction, I think, to hold on to things that are dear to us and to reject the facts that might tarnish them. When the truth about Kevin Spacey was revealed, it took effort on my part to stop watching House of Cards simply because I loved that show. It makes me shiver now to think that my high-school band covered the songs of Lostprophets’ Ian Watkins, but I really loved those songs – even writing this sentence I have Rooftops playing in my head and I want to sing along. Reconciling the truth of an artist with their art is a damn difficult thing to do, but it’s also what makes slavish devotion to a particular artist so dangerous. If we fall too far in love with a writer, actor or musician, we run the risk of turning a blind eye to uncomfortable truths; and that is what troubles me about Shakespeare.
“if we found out Shakespeare used to eat live puppies we’d have just as many performances of Hamlet as the year before”
The key distinction to highlight immediately is that Shakespeare was no criminal. We need not force down any awful realities about the man himself when we read his works. That is not to say that I don’t think we would ignore anything that might come to light. When I was studying Chaucer, his implication in a rape was treated as trivia, nothing more. It was never brought up in discussions of his work, nor does it seem to weaken his position as the father of English literature. The art he gave us, it seems, is enough to relegate some poor woman’s suffering to a footnote. Depressingly, it seems too late for that to change. I am quite certain that if we found out Shakespeare used to eat live puppies we’d have just as many performances of Hamlet as the year before.
No, what we deny about Shakespeare is his antiquity. He is all but deified, and attributed with a wisdom and insight that seems barely human. ‘But miss, wasn’t he just telling stories?’ comes the cry of the bored English student; ‘No young Sally, his genius comments on the very nature of being! His very punctuation is truth’. Perhaps he meant all that we infer from his plays, perhaps he didn’t – it seems arrogant to claim we know. What is absurd is the claim his works are timeless. They are quite the opposite, but we ignore that because he’s The Bard.
So desperate are we to keep Shakespeare relevant that outside of the traditionalism of The Globe itself, almost every production strives to conceptualise his work beyond sense. The recent production of Julius Caesar at The Bridge Theatre, London heavy-handedly offered red baseball-caps to the audience. JC happens to be my favourite Shakespeare, but it has nothing to do with Trump. Caesar was a politician, and so is The Donald. That’s about the extent of the connection. Yet so attached are we to the idea of Shakespeare’s prescience that we draw parallels where none exist. Does Caesar have commentary to offer on modern American politics? Or have we simply been forced to think about them at the same time?
Irrelevance, however, isn’t nearly as big a problem as offence, so let’s talk feminism. How on earth are we still managing to ignore the endings of The Comedies? Forced marriages, like that between Paulina and Camillo at the end of A Winter’s Tale are excused with a mild look of discomfort from the actress on stage. The horror of Kate kneeling to Petrucchio at the conclusion of The Taming of the Shrew is dodged around by sarcastic delivery. To many, Kate is Shakespeare’s greatest proto-feminist: she is witty, headstrong, and very appealing to a modern audience. Here, however, is a little bit from her speech at the end of the play:
I am asham’d that women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace;
Or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway.
When they are bound to serve, love, and obey.
Director Edward Hall argued against the play’s misogyny by saying: “He’s challenging an audience’s expectations of how a woman is supposed to behave. What if, as a human being, she doesn’t want to roll over, as was expected in Shakespeare’s day? I actually think he’s championing the woman’s rights.” He’s half right. Kate doesn’t behave like an Elizabethan woman was supposed to, that’s true, but Shakespeare quickly shows us what to do with such women. She is tortured, starved and humiliated into submission. In the age of the MeToo movement, is it enough for the actress to play Kate as if she doesn’t really mean it? Though this was once a comedy is it still? For the most part, it’s still performed as one, and I have yet to encounter a director brave enough to cut these lines and replace them with ‘Go fuck yourself’.
Has Shakespeare’s talent made us lose sight of his sensibilities? There is value in his writing, of course there is, but is his time not done? Rather than twisting an ancient, misogynistic play to seem feminist, can we not just program some original feminist writing? Shakespeare could turn a phrase, I’ll give him that, but he is also turning women, minorities, and modern issues away from our theatres and schools. Making all the Montagues black and the Capulets white is not social commentary it is false equivalence. If you want a play about modern race relations, write one. Don’t pretend that that’s what Romeo and Juliet is about; it’s not. It is so easy to pretend that we’re engaging with real issues when we are coddled in a familiar story. Shakespeare will always be part of culture but the time has come to shelve his plays and make space for what is happening now. Until this happens, our theatres will remain under the shadow of the same cis, white man, who, let’s not forget, is very, very dead.