Remembering Shakespeare, an Historic Dramatist

In reaction to the recent events marking the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare our Artistic Director gives some of her thoughts on the place of his work in culture and history.

Right now, you can barely turn around without running into a reference to Shakespeare. The 400th anniversary of his death this year has made him utterly ubiquitous. But, really, isn’t he always? His language, his writing, is so woven into our everyday speech we don’t even realise it; he is the cultural fabric. Even if you’ve never seen a single one of his plays, I guarantee you know at least something about them.

Now, don’t misunderstand me, I really enjoy a good Shakespeare play. Really, the only reason HIDden hasn’t tackled one thus far is because, in the beginning, we were aiming specifically to perform lesser-known historic drama, and if there’s one thing Shakespeare is not, it’s forgotten. At this point, the reason is far less to do with any winnowing down by popularity and more because none of his plays have quite fit into our trajectory, but I expect at some point that will change and he’ll show up in our programming.

But one thing that has always fascinated me about Shakespeare is his singularity. Shakespeare is somehow outside of categorisation – we don’t think of him primarily as a writer of verse plays, although he certainly is that, and we don’t consider him first as an early modern dramatist, although, inarguably, he is that, too. Shakespeare manages to stand alone, and is often used as a yardstick against which other plays and writers are measured, particularly historically. Shakespeare’s contemporaries, some of whom wrote excellent work, are always found wanting when compared to him, if they are remembered at all. They are only ever looked upon as historic drama – and dismissed as such, when compared to the yardstick of Shakespeare.

I’ve seen this question of why posed in various books and articles, and a few solutions thrown out as possibilities, but in the end, no one ever really seems to have a solid answer. Perhaps there is no answer to “why Shakespeare” because there is seldom only one reason for anything. It’s a confluence of circumstances and, once the pattern is established, it tends to keep feeding its own momentum. These days, it would be impossible not to see Shakespeare as the definition of the literary canon, because we have all grown up in a world with educational systems which teach us that he is, and we can’t escape that.

All of this means that I think we sometimes lose sight of Shakespeare as an historic subject. Not merely his “history plays”, but all of his work, is the product of a specific time, and I sometimes wonder what we lose in our eagerness to claim him “for all time”, as Ben Jonson wrote in the preface to the First Folio. This is not an argument that Shakespeare’s plays, or those of his fellows, need always be styled as Elizabethan or Jacobian. Rather, that if we want to understand all of what these plays can say to us today, we need to understand what they were attempting to say to the audiences for whom they were created. This is true of all drama. In this, Shakespeare is anything but singular.