How Shakespeare fits our time
Bookmakers would have given very long odds on the possibility of two of world literature’s greatest figures dying in the same year and month; for them to die on the same day would have broken the bank. Nonetheless, April 23 1616 stands as the death day of both William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes, respectively the world’s greatest playwright and the world’s greatest novelist.
In the brouhaha of the Shakespeare 400th anniversary, Cervantes has been but a footnote, at least in the English-speaking world. The BBC’s World Service was in Stratford on the morning of April 23 2016, broadcasting live on its faithful 3.25 and 6.19 shortwave frequencies.
Somewhat to the surprise of the presenters of the Will special, actor Sir Ian McKellen showed himself to be what they labelled “a purist”, that is, someone who reverences the text and doesn’t like extraneous nontextual factors to get in the way.
McKellen was critical even of the film version of Richard III, adapted from the acclaimed stage version in which he played the title role.
The movie Richard, all snappily dressed in black leathers à la the real-life SS, has come to be a visual signifier for fascist dictators and their regimes. But the sheer optical overload of the film really does detract from the text, nowhere more so than in the final scene, modelled on Jimmy Cagney’s gangster in White Heat, who blows himself to oblivion from the top of a skyscraper.
Shakespeare – and Cervantes’s Don Quixote and Sancho Panza – can take endless maulings, interpretations, reworkings, revisions, revivals. Attempts to make his work “more American” or more anything seem particularly silly, given that he is, by Ben Jonson’s definition, “for the ages”. Shakespeare was the Universal Serial Bus long before some computing maven decided to create the USB connection.
To be narrowly local for a moment, though: Which of Shakespeare’s plays best suits the moment that South Africa finds itself in, after the Constitutional Court ruling that President Jacob Zuma failed to uphold the Constitution? The state is in a state of siege, with struggle heroes captured by external commercial interests and forces, their past glorious reputations sullied by present untoward behaviour.
In the hopeful days of the mid-1990s, a Wits University professor of English Literature, Martin Orkin, argued in his book Shakespeare Against Apartheid that some of the Bard’s plays spoke directly to the preliberation era in this country.
It was regarded in some quarters as tenuous thesis, and this branch of Shakespearian scholarship and textual criticism did not really take off, although it contributed to the developing body of work seen through the prisms of postcolonial criticism, race, ethnicity and new historicism.
I’d like to think that Troilus and Cressida is the candidate for this Shakespearian moment of April 2016 in South Africa. It’s (yet another) problem play. The title pages of its first year of publication described it as a History play. The editors of the First Folio of his works categorised it with the Tragedies. It came eventually to sit with the Comedies.
No comedy of Shakespeare’s is less funny. The humour here is sharply, bitterly satirical. Social satire has rarely been better deployed (it’s rather like the celebrated South African cartoonist Zapiro at warp speed plus).
There is a love story, of course – that between the two titular characters, brought into the world in the Iliad of Homer.
That promise kept and names aside, however, the world of Trojans and Greeks is very far away in Shakespeare’s vision. Here, the Greek heroes are shown to be antiheroic, venal, grasping, grubby, small-minded and even tinier in spirit.
The fearsome Greek warrior Ajax is a conceited bully. Deluded and bombastic, he is violent – shamefully beating the Fool, that character of the Elizabethan drama licensed to lash others with wit and sharp tongue.
Achilles, too, is cowardly, killing Hector in a moment granted to him by the Trojan’s very magnanimity in the heat of their duel. Hector bests Achilles in combat, and says: “Pause if thou wilt.” Achilles does, only later to ambush his resting enemy.
Hector: “I am unarmed. Forgo this vantage, Greek.”
Achilles: “Strike, fellows, strike! This is the man I seek.”
This lack of martial ethics mirrors the rot and lack of morality elsewhere in the play. Perhaps only Shakespeare could have taken the characters, events and political substance of the Trojan War, two and a half millennia before he was writing, and fashioned them in such a way that Troilus and Cressida, read in 2016, is a scathing commentary on scabrous sexual mores and corrupt, self-seeking politics everywhere.