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The complete shambles.

By MICHAEL BLACKBURN.

IT’S A COMMON belief that since Shakespeare was a genius he was incapable of writing anything that was sub-par, let alone tedious or awful. Anything that falls short of the mark must be assigned to some accomplice who just wasn’t up to the same standard, and the text as we have it only passed muster because of the demands of getting a script ready in quick working order.

That Shakespeare collaborated on some plays is not in doubt: it was usual for the times, and scriptwriting can be a very collaborative process involving writers, directors and actors. But it is obvious nonsense to claim that Shakespeare could not — or did not — come up with whole sections of a play that were unremarkable or indistinguishable from any of his contemporaries. Talent, even when raised to the level of genius, does not work like that. Every great writer has to learn their trade, a playwright probably more than any other, given the practicalities of theatre. Every great writer is capable of penning the second rate. Shakespeare was no different.

I’ve always known this but I began to understand it even more since I embarked on a project with an old friend. My friend, with whom I went to school, lives in Australia and we have a Skype conversation every couple of weeks or so. He reminded me (though I had forgotten the incident) that when I was reciting to him my newly acquired first-year reading list for my degree it stated we were expected to read all of Shakespeare’s plays. This elicited from me a vehement and unrepeatable response along the lines of, “All of them? I should cocoa!” It’s partly to make amends for this youthful rashness that we decided to work our way through all the plays and discuss them at a leisurely pace in our conversations. We may even get to have read all of them by the time we both kick the proverbial bucket into the dark backward and abysm of time.

We’ve already gone through Julius Caesar — an easy feat since we have both been familiar with it for years. There is a lot to discuss there and the language is brilliant. Next in line is Henry IV Part 1; again, an easy option since we did it for O-level. I dismissed The Two Gentlemen of Verona as unworthy of any consideration, without any resistance, having doggedly made my own way through it. Absolute rubbish. We dealt with The Taming of the Shrew, which we despatched with alacrity. Not much better than Two Gents, in my view.

And there’s the rub. The Two Gents appears in The Oxford Complete as Shakespeare’s first play and the Shrew second. Both are replete with now unfunny wordplay and people pretending to be someone else, the kind of thing which, for some reason, Elizabethan audiences considered the height of hilarious entertainment. The Shrew complicates things by having the main action happening as a play within a play, but without properly tidying the structure up. And both plays lack the memorable phrase or image, which is a hallmark of classic Shakespeare.

So, both show a tyro playwright learning his trade, employing popular genres and narratives, testing his ability with the language in a theatrical form, and seeing what he could manage in terms of structure. In that situation he can be forgiven for turning out something that was less than scintillating, especially given what was to come. I like to think that he looked back at these works and thought to himself, “Everyone’s got to start somewhere. Thank heavens I got them out of the way.”

It is also a commonplace to hear people say if Shakespeare were alive today he’d be writing for television and films and thus producing material for the masses (the masses – now there’s an old-fashioned concept). It’s probably true but those media by their nature are linguistically limited compared with what dramatic verse offered. Not even the heights of great cinema, such as The Third Man, can provide the same reach as Hamlet or King Lear.

And as for the soaps, I can imagine him contributing to Eastenders, for instance, but the result would still be a sentimentalised, inaccurate and politically corrected version of the working class. You can see the problems with the editors (and other writers): “Look, Will, what’s this ‘sedulous ape’ phrase? Nobody under the age of 50 knows what sedulous means. It’s all a bit middle class and fuddy-duddy, isn’t it? We can’t confuse our viewers with strange words. And you cannot possibly use the word ape when there are people of colour BAMEs around. That’s racist. This is not the 1950s, you know.”

I wonder how he would coped with our brave new world, with such timid souls in it.


suxcoverCurrente Calamo columnist, poet and writer Michael Blackburn lives in Lincolnshire. A Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Lincoln University (2005 – 2008), his poetry has appeared in numerous publications and anthologies over the years, including Being Alive (Bloodaxe) and Something Happens, Sometimes Here (Five Leaves Press). His most recent book is Albion Days (perennisperegrinator press). Sucks to Your Revolution is a collection of his Fortnightly columns.

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