In honour of Shakespeare’s eternal work

British High Commissioner Greg Quinn honoured the legacy of William Shakespeare, the greatest playwright of all time, with his third Annual Shakespeare Film Night on April 25. This highlighted the season of Shakespeare celebrated worldwide and helped to shine the spotlight on this observance in Guyana. The ‘Bard of Avon’ was on stage too, with a performance of The Tempest, one of his greatest comedies, by the National Drama Company of Guyana the previous week at the National Cultural Centre.

The work screened on the film night was a BBC production of the comedy Twelfth Night. It was the annual season of performances and focus on the work of the world’s most celebrated poet-playwright because he was born on April 23, 1564. Furthermore, it is almost held as yet another of his exceptional qualities that he also died on April 23, his birthday, in 1616.

High Commissioner Quinn emphasized the significance of the timing of the film night by linking the poet and the date of his birthday to the contemporary political affairs and social interests of the United Kingdom. By another fascinating coincidence, April 23 became an important date in English history for yet another reason. On that day in 2018, the Prince of Cambridge, fifth in line to the British throne, was born. He is the third child of Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, who is second in line and his wife Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge. 

The playwright himself had much interest in royalty and succession to the throne, having written on them as part of the plot in many plays. Often, succession was the subject of villainy. Just as it is of lively interest to the British population, it was a grave political issue in Shakespeare’s lifetime as Queen Elizabeth I tactically refused to marry, partly, it was believed, to avoid serious royal and political divisions. Elizabeth was a patron of ‘the Bard’ and in part, significantly responsible for the exceptional greatness of that age for English literature and theatre.

But there are many other ways in which we can see Shakespeare as a contemporary in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. He correctly predicted through several of the Sonnets that his work would be “eternal”. That it would make things immortal and defy time; that “in black ink” it would “still shine bright”, as it has done these 450 years. As a writer ahead of his time, many aspects of his work address themselves directly to so many current issues in the United Kingdom as well as in the wider world, so that this season of plays celebrate Shakespeare the contemporary.

Although the BBC film started off with a shipwreck caused by a tempest, to show how the heroine Viola came to find herself alone in the Dukedom of Illyria and how she was parted from her brother Sebastian, the play begins with the Duke Orsino’s famous speech, so often quoted ever since. The film takes artistic liberties with the original script. It is Twelfth Night, a time when there is music and entertainment.

If music be the food of love, play on,

Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,

The appetite may sicken, and so die.

That strain again, it had a dying fall.

O, it came o’er my ear, like the sweet sound

That breathes upon a bank of violets,

Stealing and giving odour. Enough, no more,

 Tis not sweet now, as it was before.

The speech is usually quoted out of context as it is counter to joy, merriment or the sweetness of romance. One must pay attention to Shakespeare the poet’s imagery. There is great irony here.  Twelfth Night (the last night of the Christmas season) is a festive time, even a romantic time.  But look at the sickening-sweet, cloying nature of the images, which are almost sad and “dying”.  In the film the Duke shouts at the musician to stop because the music, counter to its purpose, is making him sad. Orsino is lovesick, pining over a superficial obsession in courtly love fashion for the Countess Olivia who blatantly expresses no interest in him. But his constant wooing of her is to lead to many of the play’s complications, including villainy and a bit of mocking slapstick, so vividly played in the film.

Among the play’s comedic complications, Viola, for her own protection, disguises herself as a boy and is employed by Orsino as his attendant. The Shakespearean comedy is riddled with mistaken identities, misunderstandings caused by this and by mischief. There is much discordance and ironic contradictions as Viola, pretending to be male, is sent by Orsino with messages to woo Olivia on his behalf. Olivia falls in love with Viola, while Viola is gradually falling in love with Orsino. They all work themselves out satisfactorily in the end, but the play takes us through a comedy of errors, contrariness and confusion, made very effective by the way the BBC film plays up the slapstick and humour.

One way in which many elements of the play, and of other similar comedies of the ilk of As You Like It, make Shakespeare a very relevant contemporary is the way the plays, the playwright’s preoccupations, the ironic complications and the errors can reflect present day England.

Shakespeare, were he writing today, would have opposed Brexit. The same kinds of discordance, contradictions, irony and comedic errors obtain. Shakespeare is not numbered among the Euroskeptics, and on the contrary, had a vision whose horizons embraced the whole of Europe and indeed, the wider (known) world. He saw value in cross-culturalism, opposed the racist tendencies of his society and challenged the narrowness of accepted norms. He valued the strength of cross-border and in fact, of human unity. He was “involved in mankind”. He would have seen the value of Britain as “piece of the continent. A part of the main”, from which, “if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less” (John Donne, Shakespeare’s contemporary).

Note the way Shakespeare set so many of his plays in other countries outside of England and Scotland. Why, for example, are so many of them set in Italy? Most likely it reflected cultural awareness, an appreciation of scholarship and the great influence of the Renaissance. Italy would have been the cultural and intellectual capital of Europe in Elizabethan times. Powerful was the inspiration from Boccaccio and Petrarch, who also greatly moved Chaucer, of Dante and of the great artists Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo; even the highly controversial Machiavelli. It was an Italy from which the English before Shakespeare had borrowed a great deal.

Of course, as a student of the Classics, he had deep interest in the treasures of Greece and Rome.  He developed a volume of Roman plays, he valued the classical mythology and read Sir Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives of the Romans and was fascinated by Roman playwright Seneca. Yet he was not a reputed borrower, but an innovator. Like all his contemporaries, he took from them, but used them to create his own brand which became known as Shakespearean.

Within the range of plays that reflected that broad enlightenment of spirit and humanitarianism were, like Chaucer before him, challenges to the norms of European society and a tendency that might even be described as post-colonial. There is a current issue regarding anti-Semite sentiments in British politics. Shakespeare’s plays confronted racism, discrimination and the persecution of minorities in the society. Some of his best poetry in the plays is aimed against these. The treatment of Shylock the Jew in the comedy The Merchant of Venice is the best example of this.

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge?

It is not written in verse, but it is the highest quality of Shakespearean poetry with his best employment of the device of rhetoric. There is repetition and gradation, effective tactics of rhetorical oratory. It is rhetorical, not logical argumentation, but poetic in the first degree as a defence by Shylock against the Christian community in Venice and their persecution of the Jews as a minority group in the society.

The audience of this play expects Shylock the stereotype usurer and materialist to be the villain of the piece, but Shakespeare allows him deeply humanitarian treatment.  If anything, there is subtle criticism of the Christian society. According to critic David Dabydeen, while Shakespeare’s plays were revered in Nazi Germany, for a very long time The Merchant of Venice was excluded from circulation in the country.

In fact, Dabydeen and Nana Wilson Tagoe have written on the subject of charges of racism levelled against Shakespeare because of works in which black characters appear. Indeed, careful studies of these works reveal evidence to the contrary.

Even the most villainous of characters such as Aron, the black Moor in Titus Andronicus is afforded the best poetic lines in the play and the most humane arguments against wrongs done to him. Furthermore, Aron’s villainy is not restricted to him or his type, but there is greater barbarity and savagery from his white antagonists in the play to whom Shakespeare does not accord the same poetic dignity.

The arguments are in Shakespeare’s favour when one considers other black characters such as Othello and the Prince of Morocco in The Merchant of Venice. The Tempest stands as an archetypal treatise against colonialism, usurpation, conquest and slavery. Caliban is given the best poetry in the play and he is presented as a superior character to a few of the most villainous men from Naples and Milan. Shakespeare dramatizes a thesis against the concept of a savage like Caliban whose nature could not be refined by nurture.

Several of these characteristics of Shakespeare were brought into focus by the showing of Twelfth Night and the stage performance of The Tempest during a virtual season of Shakespeare’s works on the anniversary of his birth. In many ways, a spotlight was shone on Shakespeare, the contemporary.

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