Shakespeare's (mildly) bawdy

In the April issue of Harper's, Jonathan Bate tackles "How Shakespeare Conquered the World." Among many other things, the case he presents is a vigorous and thoughtful counter to Gary Taylor's brilliant bit of iconoclastic scholarship, Reinventing Shakespeare: A Cultural History from the Restoration to the Present, in which Taylor argues that Shakespeare became enshrined as the "Universal Poet," a unique genius, the greatest poet ever, primarily because of the rise of the British Empire and the need for a cultural standard-bearer, something of a highbrow justification for British pre-eminence other than God and the Maxim gun. One is reminded of comedian Eddie Izzard when he discovers India and finds people on it objecting to his claiming the country for the Queen: "Do you have a flag? ... Well, do you? Sorry: No flag, no country." It was kind of the same with Shakespeare: "Well, we have the Bard, and you don't." Which, actually, is pretty much what Saul Bellow said in his famous insulting dismissal: "Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?"

In any event, Bate never explicitly mentions Taylor, but he argues -- summarizing quickly here -- that Shakespeare was not hampered much by classical theories (unlike Jonson, Dryden, Moliere, etc.) and was able to enter into a wide range of characters' minds. Ergo, very quickly, he appealed to a broader range of readers and theatergoers (more than just the literary aficionados), yet he also influenced more writers (particularly the new professionals, not dependent on patronage, who saw in him a path to both commercial success and artistic respectability) -- all this, before the march of the redcoats really began. Bate then follows the Bard's rising fortunes with the re-opening of the theaters and the efforts of people like David Garrick to make Bardolatry "a secular faith."

All this is pretty straightforward and credible history, nothing that many people could object to. Taylor follows much the same path. What follows is a sensitive and complex argument involving why people find Shakespeare's characters appealing and compelling ("In Shakespeare's world, character is not predetermined"), how Shakespeare was used as government propaganda (mostly willingly, it seems) yet also presents a subtle republicanism to the prevailing monarchical and ecclesiastical powers. And so forth. Well worth reading, in short.

If you need to brush up on your Shakespeare before tackling this article, try this fun bit o' Bard background and a consideration of Bate's great question (to quote the video clip): "Why is William Shakespeare so Gosh Darn Important?":

March 28, 2007 9:53 AM | | Comments (1)



The political argument is most persuasive for me and I think it explains a lot of his popularity during his lifetime also. Because the monarchy found itself well represented in his historical phase you could even argue Shakespeare takes the politics of three eras (that of his past being the third) to service his popularity.

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