Today is the day when we honour the birth of William Shakespeare. On April the 23rd (or thereabouts) in 1564 the greatest playwright in history of the world, and the greatest of English poets, first breathed air.

So why the fuss? Well, apart from anything else, we have ceased to live in a world where you can take the centrality of Shakespeare for granted. It’s years now since Frank Kermode, arguably the greatest living English critic, said that if the musicologists of the world carried on about Beethoven the way literature departments carry on about Shakespeare you would conclude that they were insane.

He was referring to the different heresies that can work to debunk Shakespeare. There’s the view that Shakespeare is simply the Great Writer we had to have and that his classic status is a conspiracy on the part of vested interests intent on their own power plays and class advantages. Then there’s the other camp that takes Shakespeare’s classic status, his place in the so-called canon for granted but is only interested in him as the site for whatever can be said about the political formations (generally, in practice, the political atrocities) of Tudor and Stuart England. This lot are the New Historicists who provoked Terry Eagleton to say that when he was reading these critics he flicked through the book until he came to the first mutilated corpse.

In fact there’s a bit more to Shakespeare than the pretence that his destiny was to end up on an inside trading syllabus or that his primary interest is for scholars to wade in the blood and horror of the axe-edge world of Reformation England. Canon formations, like disembowelings, tend to pall.

Shakespeare doesn’t. It really is true of him, as he said of Cleopatra, that age doesn’t wither him or custom stale his infinite variety. But it remains the case that he should continue to be made available, one way or another, to the children we breed who are in need of a dramatic fix.

He’s still the yardstick for the sort of people who make The Bill (thousands of British actors make the jump from playing a crim or a cop to mouthing blank verse). Neil Armfield told me that Heath Ledger a couple of years before his death was talking about playing Hamlet in Australia. (He apparently caused quite a stir when he did it at school in Perth.)

And there is nothing like Shakespeare to indicate to a young actor the elasticity and grandeur that acting can effect if the actor has the equipment. In January, Cate Blanchett was absolutely compelling in Sydney as Richard II in Benedict Andrews’ The War of the Roses (despite the gender bend) and then turned up hours later in the midst of a hit and miss and remorselessly cutting edge abridgement of the History Plays — sometimes with chaps like Benedict so much edge is cut you wonder what’s left — and gave as fine a performance as Lady Anne in Richard III as the world has seen.

Two years ago Melbourne got see Ian McKellen’s King Lear, directed by Trevor Nunn for the Royal Shakespeare Company, with all the savagery and music that a great actor can bring to that most exacting of all the great tragic roles.

Lear’s Howl over the body of Cordelia is like the death of the family and of every human hope. When I was a child, a lifetime ago, I saw John Gielgud do the last scene of King Lear with the tears pouring down his face. It taught me, in a way nothing else could, that there was more to Shakespeare than eloquence.

That was a one-man show, an actor and bare boards. Anyone who saw John Stanton do his one-hander about Shakespeare’s Kings, And When He Falls, which he was doing at 45 Downstairs in Melbourne a few weeks ago would have felt the dazzle of the greatest range of moods and machinations behind the rhetoric and poetry of the language.

Of course you have to surrender to eloquence in the first place which is why kids should be subjected to the Ian McKellens of this world. As John Cleese said once, no one would know how Shakespeare was done unless they saw it. More particularly, unless they heard it. If you want kids to cotton on to Shakespeare encourage them to listen to the Gielguds and Oliviers, the Vanessa Redgraves and the Judi Denchs. The story goes that when Marlon Brando was lined up to play Marc Antony in the old MGM film of Julius Caesar (with James Mason as Brutus and John Gielgud as Cassius) he shut himself in his trailer and the man who made Stanley Kowalski part of modern memory proceeded to listen over and over to recordings of Laurence Olivier. The upshot in the film is staggering and absolutely classical for all its apparent iconoclasm.

Brando learnt to feel Shakespeare by learning to hear him. It’s something we can give our children. It’s easy to shy away from being blimpish about this kind of thing and think that every young teenager should be left to her Twilight and her Gossip Girl or whatever comes in its wake. In fact, Shakespeare is the essence of the glamour of our entire dramatic tradition.

Even though glamour is something he can always transcend. Think of Miriam Margolyes (performing in the new Australian play Realism for the Melbourne Theatre Company at the moment). In Baz Luhrman’s Romeo and Juliet, Leo and Clare Daines don’t sound as if they’ve been paying any mind to the cadences of Gielgud or Maggie Smith but Miriam as the Nurse was completely undeterred by the Mexicano accent she had to assume and gave a wonderful performance as that sublime garrulous dolt of a woman. In fact, if you want a kid to get intimate with the music and drama of Romeo and Juliet you might try them out on that late sixties version that Zeffirelli put on celluloid. A few years later Peter Brook made a film (shot by Ingmar Bergman’s cinematographer Sven Nykvist) of Paul Scofield’s King Lear.

And you can get God’s plenty of Shakespeare on DVD: Ken Branagh or Mel Gibson as Hamlet, Laurence Fishburne as Othello, Al Pacino as Shylock, the Branagh/Emma Thompson Much Ado About Nothing, Burtton and Taylor in Taming of the Shrew, Olivier or McKellen as Richard III. Two recent additions to the catalogue are Maggie Smith as Portia in The Merchant of Venice and a DVD of the McKellen/Nunn Lear.

Or, if you want to invest in the Complete Works and you’re willing to shop around on the net, you can get the whole BBC Shakespeare for about $300. You’ll need to ensure that your DVD player is zoneless but assuming this you’ll get everything in this 1980’s recapitulation of Shakespeare’s dramatic corpus from the young Helen Mirren in As You Like It and a Midsummer Night’s Dream, Anthony Hopkins as one of the last white Othellos, Derek Jacobi as Hamlet and Richard II, Elijah Moshinsky directing a superb Coriolanus with Alan Howard.

It’s a steal and the thing really is the greatest sentimental education the English language has on offer.

Remember Cleopatra saying, the asp at her breast, “Peace, see you not my baby that sucks the nurse asleep. Or Hotspur — I always hear Sean Connery’s voice say the words, as I first heard them in childhood — “Die all, die merrily”. Or Falstaff saying to his old tiresome friend, “We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow.”

And on and on it goes. A dramatic dreamworld deeper than any lifetime. No wonder that we honour the man’s birthday.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW