The 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth was marked by a weeklong festival in Stratford-upon-Avon and the usual bluster of academics seeing an opportunity to complete their required bit of public engagement for the year by earnestly demonstrating how Shakespeare is “still relevant today”. The seamy underside of this jubilation could be traced via Twitter along the hashtag #IhateShakespeare, which strings together school pupils letting off steam while writing diary entries on behalf of Ophelia in their coursework, and trying to decide what Macbeth’s tragic flaw is for their exams. Invariably, the pupils complain of not being able to understand Shakespeare, charging him with obscurantism, and wondering why on earth this stuff should have the privileged place at the centre of their curriculum it does.
Before we decry yet more dumbing down and generational laziness, it is worth noting that some of these attitudes to Shakespeare actually emerged surprisingly early. In 1721 – not even a hundred years after the appearance of the first Shakespeare complete works – the radical Catholic Bishop Francis Atterbury wrote to the poet and Shakespeare editor, Alexander Pope, complaining that having “found time to read some parts […] in an hundred places I don’t understand him. There are allusions in him to an hundred things, of which I knew nothing, and can guess nothing”. When in the British sitcom, The Office, David Brent refers reverentially to “The Canterbury Tales of Chaucer and Shakespeare”, the joke is on his pretentious desire to appear familiar with these great figures of English literature, while also showing how our culture tends reduce them to interchangeable names. For as long as they are merely high-minded totems of English culture, Shakespeare might as well have written The Canterbury Tales. In The Office this seems like a peculiarly modern cultural bankruptcy, and yet it was possible to make an identical joke in the early eighteenth century. Writing to his fellow satirist John Gay in 1729, Jonathan Swift drops the mock-clanger, “I have heard of The Wife of Bath, I think in Shakespeare”. In the same period, the author of the first English Dictionary Samuel Johnson discusses Lady Macbeth’s “Come, thick night!/ And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell” speech, and scowls that the English language has simply moved on: “words which convey ideas of dignity in one age are banished in another, and can no longer be heard without the involuntary recollection of unpleasing images”.
What these relatively early readers of Shakespeare and the complaining school pupils have in common is their refusal to fall for the truism that Shakespeare should be altogether comprehensible to us today, that he somehow offers a direct reflection of our own dilemmas and feelings, and still less that he fulfils any Michael Gove-ish idea of national identity. In this respect, both have a similar potential to the musician and painter Billy Childish’s ‘Art Hate’ movement, which is committed to rescuing artworks from the insincere elevation they receive in the fashionable art establishment by professing hatred for them. For Johnson, Shakespeare’s way of writing has gone, and yet while the “Come, thick night” speech seems antagonistic to all of his ideas about what modern writing should be, he nonetheless concedes that “in this passage is exerted all the force of poetry; that force which calls new powers into being, which embodies sentiment and animates matter”. Then and now, this obscure experience of violent surprise is the experience of poetry. Today, when Shakespeare has been allowed to become a byword for establishment culture, to find this sense of surprise in him again, we must first learn how to hate him.