Tuesday, February 11, 2003

Shakespeare and Imperialism

So in that email to my Great-Uncle, I alleged that Henry V is pro-war propaganda... I guess I should clarify that Henry V could be used as pro-war propaganda (and has)... But, you could also play around with it to, say, make Henry seem like a war criminal; he does order his troops to kill the French POWs after all.

Anyway, I dug up a quotation from Gary Taylor, author of Reinventing Shakespeare. He argues that Shakespeare's current status is the fruit of centuries of public relations on the part of British Imperialism, which spread the English language around the world. His book is about how each generation recreates Shakespeare according to their own preoccupations, anxieties and beliefs. Taylor's a bit of a Shakespearean contrarian, so I like him, even if I don't totally agree with him.

Writes Taylor: "Shakespeare is popular now because he has been popular. If we could rewind the tape of the past and erase from 1650 to the present and simply go back on our own to the literature of the fifteeth and sixteenth centuries, I'm not sure Shakespeare would be the one we would choose to elevate. His status in our time is a reflection of inertia as much as anything else.

"Shakespeare became popular in the eighteenth century because he represented a return to the safety of the past before all the upheavals of the revolutions, both English and French. Shakespeare began to get popular during the French Revolution, when he was seized upon as the champion of solid English values such as the monarchy....

"The period of Shakespeare's greatest power and cultural influence began in the late eighteenth century and lasted through most of the nineteeth century, when the university system for the study of literature began. So the study of Shakespeare was culturally locked in place at that time. Shakespeare and the Bible were the two books everybody knew, but making the Bible compulsory is controversial today, while Shakespeare courses are still required. Shakespeare is our last cultural stronghold. His works have become our secular Bible."

-- as quoted in Norrie Epstein's wonderful The Friendly Shakespeare, page 7-8.

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