Monday, 8 October 2012

Rude Shakespeare

For the British establishment Shakespeare occupies a central place in 'our' culture and heritage. He is our national bard, and he is a genius of global significance. His image is international; it is a global brand. His plays are perfomed everywhere, and as the recent international season at the London Globe demonstrated, the plays are constantly open to creative interpretations that resonate with multiple meanings for a diversity of contemporary cultural, geographical, social, and ethnic groups.

It's not surprising that his plays are complusory across most of English literary education in schools and in Universities. It is also why he was crucial to the Opening Ceremony at the 2012 Olympics. It is also why we need to constantly remind ourselves that Shakespeare rightly belongs to the people - to a global community of ordinary folk - and not just to the British elite, to the middle classes, and to the commercialised heritage industry.

Working recently with a group of Birmingham homeless people I was delighted to hear from them in their own words how much they had enjoyed a recent performance of the Royal Shakespeare Company's staging of The Tempest (May 2012). In particular, they enjoyed the spectacle and the drama of it. Like me, they were enchanted by Caliban's poetic appreciation of his island, and even more by his laying claim to it.

Hearing the homeless people speak, I recalled my experience at The Globe several years ago. As a £5 'groundling' I was standing at the front of the pit, by the stage, as Caliban bent down and delivered his speech right into my face. The magical transformation of poetry, property and theft!

This island's mine, by Sycorax my mother,
Which thou tak'st from me. When thou cam'st first,
Thou strok'st me and made much of me, wouldst give me
Water with berries in 't, and teach me how
To name the bigger light, and how the less,
That burn by day and night. And then I loved thee
And showed thee all the qualities o' th' isle,
The fresh springs, brine pits, barren place and fertile.
Cursed be I that did so! All the charms
Of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on you!
For I am all the subjects that you have,
Which first was mine own king; and here you sty me
In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me
The rest o' the' island.

It was a wonderful moment, and a weird sensation, of being singled out. It also reminds me to say that the unique and individual perception of the plays is as significant as the discourses of shared values and imposed universality that we often used to encounter in Shakespeare studies.

This reminds us too that Caliban is also, in his own way, singled out, and the monstrous centre of the drama, and perhaps of the primal violence of the colonial project. He is one thing, but he is also all colonised peoples. As Shakespeare's playful rhetoric also undercuts its own creations, and cross-stitches them with multiple discourses, Caliban is also the No-thing, the castrated object of Prospero's triumphant Will (author-ity-stage-manager).

But as an oppressed subject it is also significant that Shakespeare/Caliban manipulate the oppressor's language, and throw it back in our faces. Shakespeare gave eloquence to the creature; he grave him the poetry of nature, but he also gave him rudeness and aggression.

It was specifically this mode of prickly rudeness (see below, in italics) that my school edition of Shakespeare would not allow (and expurgated/ cut-out); censorship is another mode of textual castration...

All the infections that the sun sucks up
From bogs, fens, flats, on Prosper fall and make him
By inch-meal a disease! His spirits hear me
And yet I needs must curse. But they'll nor pinch,
Fright me with urchin--shows, pitch me i' the mire,
Nor lead me, like a firebrand, in the dark
Out of my way, unless he bid 'em; but
For every trifle are they set upon me;
Sometime like apes that mow and chatter at me
And after bite me, then like hedgehogs which
Lie tumbling in my barefoot way and mount 
Their pricks at my footfall; sometime am I
All wound with adders who with cloven tongues
Do hiss me into madness.

My choice of 'rude' as the antidote to establishment respectability and censorship also picks up on Othello's self-indictment expressed thus

Rude am I in my speech,
And little blessed with the soft phrase of peace (I.iii.81–82).

A variety of racial epithets also underline and expose the victimisation of Shakespeare's violently jealous and tragic black character. He is known variously as  “the Moor” (I.i.57), with “the thick-lips” (I.i.66); he is “an old black ram” (I.i.88) and “a Barbary horse” (I.i.113).  As with Caliban, there is a monstrous, sexualised and earthy quality about this presentation. But Othello, like Caliban, does not lack skilful eloquence; his mastery of rhetoric and sincere emotional expression is what makes him a noble and a tragic being.

So, I'm less inclined than ever to repudiate the bard's monstrous rudeness and I am more inclined to redeem its inclusiveness. In my view Shakespeare's downtrodden creatures are triumpant in their rude facility: they are far more than the stereotypical 'comic relief' suggested by the sub-plotting rude mechanicals. Our TV drama may hinge on a crude Upstairs/Downstairs world, but Shakespeare aesthetic and class interactivity is far more diffuse and complex to be reduced to an absurd high/low formula.

Instead, the varietry of rudeness outlined in this essay marks an ironic and upstart challenge to the official cultures that Shakespeare also displayed, and which the high cultural establishment still wants us to absorb as the civilizing truth of a Shakespearean world view that is ordered, harmonious, and happy but unequal.