Shakespeare                                                                                                                                                             Posted 17th December 2013

ONE way to avoid the awesomeness of mountains is to live where it is pretty well flat and never travel. Then every time you climb a hillock you can plant a flag on it and feel like Sir Edmund Hillary. I think that is pretty much what contemporary culture tends to do. Times can be parochial as well as places and we seem to be living at the moment in a kind of village of the spirit.

One of the signs is how cheaply celebrity comes these days. Actors who have done nothing more than appear mechanically a few days a week in soap operas have their lives written about endlessly in the papers. Their moods, what they are wearing, the people they are seeing where they have been eating are reported as if they were news. Simply because we know who they are, they are deemed to be important. The primary value of our times is probably that of being known, never mind for what.

This may seem harmless enough in itself but the problem is that the cult of celebrity is so strong among us that it appropriates all other values to itself, like a school bully collecting tribute in the playground. Fame appears to intimidate us into handing over to the famous attributes to which they patently have no right.

So Geri Halliwell, a not unpleasant-looking woman who has lost an alarming amount of weight recently, has her picture constantly in the press alongside descriptions like "stunning" and "beautiful". (If that's what she is, how are we going to describe Sophia Loren? To the drawing board and invent another language? No, all she is is famous at the time.

We can become so abject in the overpowering presence of modern fame that we not only offer it our own accolades. We frequently oblige people who can't defend themselves to hand over their own reputations to the arrogant demands of the present. So Eminem is not just a petulant smart-mouth who has sold over nine million records. He is, as the Guardian has recently told us, a genius who can be compared favourably with Robert Browning.

The bigger and more securely canonical the reputation, the more it has to be diminished, so that we can reduce everything, and especially the past, to nothing more than an echo of our own times. The complexity of the achievements of former ages is obscured behind the digit we hold up to apply modernity's very rough rule of thumb.

Enter Shakespeare, climbing down sheepishly from a plinth, while the groundlings hiss and boo. Our time has found him out, knows how to put him in his place. Carol Vorderman doesn't like him. And she should know, for she is nationally famous for doing sums and wearing funny frocks. He is, she informs us with absolute confidence, "as dull as ditchwater".

Her considered reappraisal hardly constitutes an isolated voice. There's a chorus of them. A Scottish writer has appeared on television to wonder what all the fuss is about in relation to Shakespeare, since he writes like Barbara Cartland. An English professor at a university in England makes the unqualified statement that, if it is a choice between Shakespeare and The Bill, he'll take The Bill. Now, in a survey just commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company, the voice of our times is heard loud and clear. Coronation Street and EastEnders are the 21st century equivalent of Shakespeare. The survey was arranged to coincide with his date of birth, April 23. Some birthday present, Will. Happy birthday to you, right  enough.

You can see what they mean, of course. What he wrote was drama at that time and TV is drama at this time. They're both the same thing really, aren't they? Well, yes, if your terms of judgement are crass enough to let you think that General William Booth and Attila the Hun are more or less identical. And why not? They both led an army.

Any comparison between Shakespeare and contemporary soap opera is more instructive in the differences it highlights between his time and ours than in any supposed resemblances. "Equivalent" as meaning "equal or interchangeable in value, quantity, significance; having the same or similar effect or meaning" is hardly a word that applies. Even in terms as crude as quantity it's hard to see the similarity. Shakespeare, amazingly prolific though he was, would have needed to live to about the age of 403 to match the output so far of Coronation Street. But then he was an individual and what he is being compared to are programmes with countless writers over the years. It seems a weird frame of reference.

Weirder still is the implication that he and soap operas are somehow qualitatively doing the same thing. Coronation Street and EastEnders are programmes I enjoy well enough when I catch them. What they do they do with great competence but it is a small thing. They reflect the times, they do not interpret them and they most certainly don't leave any profound understanding of human nature to endure beyond the times.

I can't see people 400 years from now poring over old videos of EastEnders to achieve a deeper comprehension of their lives. Even if ante-post betting could accommodate a 400-year time-span, that's one result I wouldn't bet on at any odds. There's no reason why these programmes should do that, of course. They pass the time interestingly and that is a quality not to be lightly dismissed. Let's enjoy them but let's not exaggerate the comparative triviality of what they're doing into something commensurate with the size of Shakepeare's enterprise. That would be to vandalise the past, to obscure its unique originality under the clichés of the present. You don't make a monument your own by spraying it with your graffiti.

It's important for our own sense of ourselves that we retain a just historical sense of Shakespeare's achievement. Living at a time when English was still molten and forming into wonderful new coinages all around him, he used it to explore with an unprecedented and unrepeated intensity the nature of experience. Countless minds since then have enlarged themselves by meeting his meanings. He's a gift to the species.

He abides our question, of course. Everybody does. But you'd better make it a question a lot less dumb than "Isn't what you wrote just 16th century soap opera?" This a historical approach has a common reverse form. I've seen the suggestion made several times that, if Shakespeare were alive today, he would be writing for television. Maybe he would. But then he wouldn't be Shakespeare, would he?

Elizabethan drama is word-intensive. The only visuals are the players and the props. Everything else, from passion to place, is conjured up from words into the minds of the audience. In Henry V Agincourt itself emerges from the mouth of the Chorus. Without the creative participation of the audience there is no event. It is the art of an intensely imaginative culture.

In our electronic culture the image dominates to an extent that can almost reduce the words to extras. We don't have to describe place, to find our personal sense of it in our minds - we can simply show it. We don't have to understand passion to express it, we can simply depict it visually. It is the art of an imaginatively passive culture.

This widening space between him and us is often explained by stating simply that he lacks contemporary relevance. I can think of no single writer more pressingly relevant to our understanding of our lives than Shakespeare. The problem is not that he no longer talks to us significantly but that our ability effectively to listen is diminishing. The audience for him is becoming ever more impatient of the demands he makes on them. We should at least have the honesty to admit that the static which can blur his meaning for us is primarily caused by the weakness of our reception systems, not by any failure of power in his transmission.

I'm not advocating any unthinking reverence for the past. Any time that old question arises round the dinner table about which era you would have chosen to live in, I always say the present. But in order for the present to realise itself, it can't merely appropriate the past. It has to relate to it honestly.

There are mountains of achievement there which we shouldn't simply pretend don't exist. Shakespeare is surely one. He's a landmark of ourselves. It's your choice if you prefer never to visit it. But that doesn't give you the right to bulldoze him out of existence to make a throughway for the slickness of the times.

(First printed SoS - 6th May 2001)