Why Shakespeare

The glib answer is, of course, ‘Why not?’
But the proper, longer – real – answer goes a little something like this.

Four hundred and fifty years ago, a boy was born in Stratford Upon Avon, the son of a glove maker and wool merchant. He studied a little Latin (and less Greek) at the local grammar school, and discovered the power of storytelling, the joy in making things up and sharing them. After marrying and becoming a father to a daughter, Susannah, he disappears from history for about a decade – what he was doing or where he went no one really knows. Theories abound, but they’re just stories when it boils down to it, his very stock in trade. We can only guess, but we know what happened next.
He wrote plays, sonnets, poems. He loved and learnt, listened; lived. Within the wooden O of the great Globe itself, he created kingdoms for a stage, had outcasts to act and monarchs to behold his swelling scenes. He captured the soul of the age in such a way no one before or since has ever come close.
He wrote before dictionaries in their strictest sense were a dream, though books of words were being compiled in their own respective manners. He created words as he needed them, and we still use them. Spellings were erratic at the best of times, because there was no accepted way of spelling any one single word. Spellings were influenced by accent, dialect, speaker and the ear of the person writing it down, hence the reason his name is spelt diversely in various records.
Every other contender for the authorship theory falls flat on their face when you realise that Shakespeare wrote for a group of actors – the Chamberlain’s (and then King’s) Men – and every role was specifically tailored to an individual’s talents. There are no small roles, the old adage goes, only small actors, and for Shakespeare’s troupe, there was no such thing as a small actor. Forget unimaginative theories like the necessity for him to have been learned at university, a soldier, a merchant, a Moor, a braggart, a thief, a king; forget the need to have travelled to the continent and further abroad: he had every bit of knowledge he could ever want at his finger tips, the most powerful repository for every scrap of recollection he could ever collect. He had two ears and an incredible memory, and learnt at a young age to listen, to savour details, to remember and save and scrounge scraps wherever you could find them. He listened, and in doing so, created worlds from words.
He was a genius, but only insofar that geniuses are merely a focussing lens for a collective group of dreamers, thinkers and practitioners. Each role was tailored to a specific actor because they created their role from the ground up, everyone making scenes from scratch, while Shakespeare beautified them, clarified their dramatic arc and rhythm.
He wrote for a blank stage, devoid of any decisive elements of set, yet his worlds are as rich as Breughel’s or Hogarth’s. He used words words words to create his pictures, and if you can’t imagine them, then perhaps it’s not his fault.
He wrote before dramaturgy was a thing, before there was any modern – let alone post-modern – way of seeing theatre. We may see holes in his characterisations, his plots perhaps seem implausible, and his endings often leave us feeling confounded, but that is because we are looking at his plays four hundred and fifty years later. After four hundred and fifty years of dramaturgical thinking, as ways of thinking about dramatic forms and principles have changed and evolved.
He did not write roles for exclusively male actors. Some of his greatest roles are his Cleopatra and his Lady Macbeth, who both make their male foils look rather weak in comparison. His Rosalind is a joy, while his Juliet is naïvely worldly. He was writing in a time when women were not allowed on stage. It wasn’t so much that there was a law explicitly forbidding it (that had, in time, been lifted); it was just the convention. Boy-apprentices played female roles, while the share-holding members of the troupe played the other meatier roles.
Four hundred and fifty years ago, there was no such thing as racially prejudiced casting, or gender-biased casting. There were simply a group of actors in a troupe – typically white men – and roles were created for them. There is nothing in the world stopping gender- and racially-blind casting from being implemented across the globe today in every production. Nothing, except perceived ‘convention’, absurdly-ingrained tradition, and small-minded didacticism.
Shakespeare wrote humans, not characters. He understood human psychology better than perhaps any dramatist or writer before or since. He understood jealousy, love, madness, sickness, health, youth, old age, beauty, truth, deceit; humans. Us.
Shakespeare is bulletproof, foolproof, idiot-proof; indestructible. You can cut up his works, rearrange them, bowdlerise them to buggery and back; you can adapt them, conflate them, transpose them, savagely edit them down, but they still bounce back. In the eighteenth century, English theatre adapted (or Bowdlerised) every Shakespeare play they could lay their hands on to fit their accepted conventions of dramatic form: tragedies were rewritten to have happier endings, comedies were conflated and edited, histories were sidelined, and the great tragic roles were reprised time and time again by the same actors, well into their old age. What we are doing to Shakespeare now is nothing new. We can edit and adapt his plays until our heart is content, but we have to remember it is not new. Shakespeare did it himself.
‘Shakespeare’ is not a brand name; his is not an icon synonymous with, nor a byword for, quality. Each play needs to be renegotiated and tackled head-on with every new production, with every passing day. ‘Shakespeare,’ as a catch-all term for his collected works, cannot be left on a shelf or revered on a pedestal otherwise he and it will become stale, a museum piece; his importance will not be reasserted.
Like the other great masters of Western culture, be it in art, literature, science, music, history, there is a reason why they are the masters. No one before or since has done what Shakespeare did in such a short space of time. No one. In just twenty-odd years, Shakespeare wrote thirty-seven plays, one hundred and fifty-four sonnets, and several poems (and that’s just what we are certain of).
Like it or not, Shakespeare is responsible for much of the dramatic ancestry which informs our contemporary theatre practices today. He changed the way we think about characters, about plots, about stories; about cause and effect, about motivations, scenes, dramatic arcs, beats and moments. He gave actors advice and mercilessly parodied his own contemporaries, and he never shirked away from challenging the status quo, though he was always careful to do it at one or two removes, often in a place calling itself Rome.
Why Shakespeare, you’ll ask me. Because he was human, I’ll answer. Because he understood what it is to be human, what it is to be mankind in all of our crazy, passionate, fluctuating, contradictory and compulsive moods. He understood what motivates us, what rash deeds we may do when we let our instinct overtake our senses. He understands us, because he was one of us. He lived four hundred-odd years ago, yet he understands us better than we sometimes do ourselves.
Why Shakespeare, you’ll ask.

Because he was Will.

And where there’s a Will, there is always a way.