We celebrated him in 2012, when a Shakespeare festival was contrived to coincide with the Olympics. We feted him again in 2014, on the 450th anniversary of his birth. And then in 2016, on the 400th anniversary of his death, we made the biggest festive fuss of all. Now from any objective point of view, such massive, repeated investment in a long-dead Warwickshire poet-playwright is to say the least remarkable, and even more remarkable during the epoch of swingeing cuts that has followed the financial crash of 2008.
But it was all premised on the biggest cultural truism there is—that Shakespeare matters. He matters more than any other writer, and as much as any other artist. And if we don’t celebrate him, then what is there to celebrate, right?
So, here’s to Shakespeare!
Now I don’t want to be a party pooper but, sometime after 2012, after another round of raised glasses to a lad unparalleled, I couldn’t help myself from wondering. I mean, what did I think I was doing? Why does Shakespeare matter? Surely we need to know in order to justify such extraordinary, continuing jubilation? Hasn’t he had his turn? Couldn’t we—shouldn’t we—be celebrating something or someone else, not to mention fighting more urgently and directly to stave off, ameliorate or even resolve the many social and political issues facing us now?
Of course, much of it was harmless fun, and that’s not nothing, even in dark times. And there are readily available reasons for celebrating Shakespeare. Here’s one for straitened circumstances: Shakespeare makes money. Another is that Shakespeare’s still here, in spite of the grave: that appeals more as you get older. And then, Shakespeare is ours. Unless you work in Stratford, that’s perhaps harder to own up to; but let no-one underestimate it after Brexit. And the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics, and the rebranding of Shakespeare as a world-playwright (‘Global Shakespeare’), suggest we can have it both ways: Shakespeare is our gift to the world.
But these are circumstantial, even circular reasons. Shakespeare matters because he matters, as a commodity or symbol. They also seem cynically self-serving, and as such symptomatic of what’s wrong with our present culture. They certainly don’t tell us why Shakespeare matters in himself. For that we have to go back to the plays.
A few years ago, I was watching a performance of Antony and Cleopatra in Stratford, and I was gobsmacked by it. I’d seen it before of course—it’s part of the job—but what moved me this time was just how singularly and completely alive Antony is. Middle-aged man; besotted adulterer; public failure: he doesn’t, perhaps, seem the most auspicious avatar for Shakespearean freedom. But he and Cleopatra dress him up as exactly that, as ‘a most sovereign creature’, the font and fount of creativity itself, his reared arm cresting the world, his delights—dolphin-like—showing his back above the element in which he lives…
That epiphany of the poetry of freedom in Shakespeare was a crucial inspiration for my new book, Shakespeare for Freedom: Why the Plays Matter. As I worked on it, the plays helped me to see into the deep and complex ways in which freedom enhances and gives value to our lives. But I also became fascinated by the fact that Shakespeare relates his great tragedy of crash-and-burn free love, Romeo and Juliet, to a fleeting glimpse of ‘Freetown’ as a place of ‘common’ social resolution. Freedom also matters politically. I was excited to discover that Shakespeare has played a part in progressive freedom movements around the world and across the centuries. ‘Workers need poetry more than bread,’ writes Simone Weil. ‘They need that their life should be a poem.’ I suggest, in my book, that Shakespeare’s plays are a dramatic poem of freedom, and not just for their heroes, but for all of us.
And that, I conclude, is why they matter.