Michael Dobson, director of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham, discusses the contemporary relevance of the Bard with James Corby ahead of a public talk he will be giving on Tuesday at the University of Malta’s Valletta campus.
Your involvement in the anniversary celebrations will have given you a unique perspective on the current standing of Shakespeare as a global literary and cultural phenomenon. Should we be surprised that, in 2016, his work has such reach and influence, and what does that tell us about the enduring and endlessly adaptable value of Shakespeare?
Given that when Shakespeare died in 1616 only half of his plays were in print, and that they were written in what was then a minority language of no real interest to anyone beyond Dover, it does seem extraordinary that 400 years after his death, people should be gathering from all over the world to lay flowers on his grave – and not just actors, scholars and directors but diplomats, princes, shop workers and farmers – an extraordinary range of people from a range of backgrounds, language communities and countries.
But then again, Shakespeare’s plays have demonstrated again and again over the past four centuries that they have an inexhaustible appetite for new audiences, new contexts, new media and new languages.
They were written for performance by actors who might be playing in a pub courtyard one day and in a court theatre before the monarch the next, so their adaptability and flexibility is built-in: above all, they are written with a consciousness that while they may deal with stories of long ago and far away, they happen to their audiences in the present. Shakespeare’s characters address us directly, now, and the stories in which they are engaged go on accruing new meanings wherever they find themselves next. They have become part of the world’s common language.
Spearheading the celebrations this year is the British Council’s Shakespeare Lives project, which is coordinating an international programme of events and activities, one of the main themes of which is diversity. Diversity in the 21st century is perhaps not the most obvious topic to associate with a white, male, Elizabethan playwright, but it attests to the breadth and capaciousness of Shakespeare’s conception of humanity. Is this one of the things that is so special about Shakespeare – the way he recognises and represents human diversity and yet also tunes into themes and situations that are universal?
Above all, Shakespeare’s defining gift is empathy: each of his characters, whether pagan or Christian, man or woman, English or Moorish or the illegitimate child of an Algerian witch, gets to speak in his or her own right. Shakespeare seems to have a special talent for getting his own ego out of the way so that his characters can get on with defining themselves and one another.
Because Shakespeare’s plays don’t depend on a knowledge of Latin and Greek – until quite recently reserved for educated men – they were especially popular with women readers from very early on, and because Shakespeare was so good at imagining female characters the fact that he wrote for an all-male company hasn’t stopped his plays being central to the careers of actresses ever since public performances by women were legalised in the 1660s.
His interest in the pliability and scope of gender and sexuality remains immensely serviceable and topical: his ethical engagement with the experiences of minorities remains exemplary.
Shakespeare’s work has travelled far from the ‘wooden O’ of the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, of course. The history of its performance in the theatre is fascinating in itself, but there are Shakespeares of other media too: there is the Shakespeare that is read, the Shakespeare of film and television, and now the Shakespeare of the digital age. Would you say this speaks on the continuing vibrancy and vitality of his work?
It speaks too of Shakespeare’s own interest in transformation. Shakespeare’s own favourite writer was Ovid, the poet who wrote in the Metamorphoses about how gods became animals to pursue mortals, and how mortals became minerals and vegetables to avoid them, and he himself was adept at transforming older folk tales and novellae and poems into new plays. The plays are full of change, personal and social, and that seems to lend a certain momentum to their own continuing adaptation into fresh media.
His interest in the pliability and scope of gender and sexuality remains immensely serviceable and topical: his ethical engagement with the experiences of minorities remains exemplary
Do you think Shakespeare and contemporary ‘bardolatry’ cast too overwhelming a shadow on his contemporaries? Or, to put it differently, if his work had not survived, who and what would we be most eager to praise now within the literature and theatre of that time?
I think Shakespeare actually deserves the special praise he gets. He is the least monumental of writers – his work isn’t a finished edifice that leaves nothing else to be said, it’s deliberately unfinished, it needs us to join in and speak and interpret and perform – but that’s exactly why he deserves monuments himself.
You can see the influence of Lyly and Marlowe on Shakespeare’s writing, but really he is not like his fellow Elizabethans and Jacobeans at all: larger in scope and vision, richer in texture, more provocative to reinterpretation. As much as I love Middleton and Jonson and Dekker I do think Shakespeare is in another league: they give us their time, Shakespeare seems to be able to take it or leave it and come into ours whole.
Can you tell us more about your talk on Tuesday?
I want to look further at the question of what made Shakespeare’s work possible, and what makes it special, in part by considering the circumstances under which it was produced. Shakespeare benefited from two kinds of patronage – that of theatregoers, and that of the court – and we have some intriguing records of how those publics responded.
I’m very struck by the enthusiasm James I’s court showed for Othello and The Merchant of Venice in particular – two plays which imagine religious conflict in remarkably nuanced, even-handed and surprising ways, and which both demonstrate enormous sympathy for outsiders.
These two dreams of Venice and its limits have been among Shakespeare’s most consistently popular plays across time and space, and I am going to look at what they have to say about difference and especially about the idea of the gift which has made them so generative for theatre-makers and readers far beyond Shakespeare’s own culture.
What advice would you have for humanities teaching at present, and Shakespeare’s role in that?
I think we should go on resisting the modern idea that the humanities are just a means to an end, a vehicle for passing on marketable skills which have nothing to do with the pleasures of literature or theatre, or being part of the continuing shared conversations and debates they enable.
I think Shakespeare’s works are vitally important because they are, above all, a source of multiple pleasures, and long may they bring those gratuitous pleasures into classrooms, whatever pretexts we may have to devise to keep them there!
Prof. Dobson’s talk, organised by the University of Malta’s Department of English in collaboration with the British Council, takes place at the Valletta campus in St Paul Street, on Tuesday at 6pm and is open to the public.