The Future of History

Friday, 20 September 2013

The Hamlet Doctrine

I've not read it yet, but judging by this piece in the Guardian a new book by Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster will be well worth a look.

It's called "The Hamlet Doctrine: Knowing Too Much, Doing Nothing", and it examines what various philosophers and psychoanalysts have said about Shakespeare's most famous play over the years.

Sound pretty dry?  Well, maybe - but what really attracted me to the book is the way the authors introduce it in their Guardian piece.  I quote:

"Shakespeare is too often identified with a misty-eyed, middlebrow, nostalgic and undemanding picture of England and Englishness.  Indeed, the Shakespeare industry is dependent on the marketing of this image - both in the production of goods for domestic consumption (whether fridge magnets or outdoor summer stagings) and for export (the "Global Hamlet" in 102 countries).  But there is a more radical and subversive version of Shakespeare, which is most clearly evident in his greatest and best-known play: Hamlet."

So far, so good (although there is a healthy argument to be had as to which of Will's plays is the most subversive).  What really delights me is that Critchley and Webster are making much the same point as I've made in Who Killed William Shakespeare? and, indeed, repeatedly on this blog.

Basically, we have been sold a crock of sh*te about William Shakespeare.  Don't get me wrong: he wrote the plays and the poems (it's a ridiculous canard that somebody else must have done all that hard work).  But he wasn't what the Stratford clique and the academic establishment want us all to think he was.

To quote Critchley and Webster again: "The banal, biscuit-box Shakespeare needs to be broken up and his work made dangerous again."


But doing so is not that easy.  Too many cultural commentators have too much invested in the smug, silly, Merrie Englande portrait of Will - the country lad, ever so 'umble, who made it big in London and then went back home and disappeared.  Critchley and Webster explain that finding a publisher in the US for their Hamlet Doctrine wasn't difficult.  But in the UK?  Well, now.  One rejection letter from a British publisher made the situation plain.  Their book was "essentially unpublishable" because it was a "condemnation of the literary culture of my country".

The authors admit that, "in one sense, he's right: our book is an implicit condemnation of a certain, mainstream, version of English culture."

Well, good on them.  That's exactly what we need.  And it's exactly what I hope I've done with my own Shakespeare opus.

The question, however, remains: why do serious, thoughtful authors who do a little more digging into Shakespeare than the average face such blanket obstructionism from the mainstream - publishers, critics, the cronies of academia?  Why?

The answer is this: the phoney, revisionist, tourist-friendly Shakespeare of popular renown belongs to a silly and ignorant vision of England's past.  It is, to put it bluntly, the Conservative Party version of English history.  It's not based on any sort of fact (except in the very broadest sense of the word) but on massive splashes of prejudice and flag-waving nationalism.

Shakespeare DID NOT write for these people.  He saw the world around him as it was, and he channelled his disgust and his fury into his works.

And so, in order to prop up the self-satisfied and nonsensical "Rule, Britannia!" narrative of English history, Shakespeare has to be (a) neutralised, politically-speaking, and (b) completely misconstrued.  That's why we have such a make-believe Shakespeare, these days, and why so many productions of his plays are so utterly meaningless and unintelligible.  The cultural elite don't want anybody to hear what Shakespeare was saying.  In fact, it's highly improbable that they understand him themselves, because their cultural prejudices won't allow them to.

That said, their historical revisionism creates an extremely flimsy and fragile view of the past.  It cannot withstand the slightest scrutiny.  This is why individuals such as the publisher quoted above respond with such sensitivity, such disdain, such horror to a proper study of Shakespeare.  They have, essentially, wrapped themselves in a Union flag and willingly collaborated in rewriting the past, to make England seem like the eternal bastion of decency.  Shakespeare, of course, has a place in that - but only as a sort of patron saint of conservative England.  When you explain that he was no such thing, the right-wing revisionists shriek and holler - because you've threatened them with a bit of reality, and you're taking "their" Shakespeare from them.

It's as if the academics are on crutches - one crutch being a foolishly simplistic, "patriotic" view of English history; the other being Shakespeare as the perfect propagandist for such a stupid notion of our troubled past - and you've just come along and kicked one or other of their crutches away.  You've made Shakespeare real again!  How dare you!!  When they've spent so much time and energy turning him into a bookmark, a T-shirt, and the least radical writer that ever lived!

So I applaud Critchley and Webster for attacking the cosy Shakespeare industry, and I welcome them as allies.  Because, unless we can rescue the genuine Shakespeare from the cold, dead hands of the Middle Englanders, we will never hear his words and share his pain.

And that would be a far greater loss to us all than the shattering of an idiotic and irrelevant Shakespeare image, as sold to us by the guardians of "mainstream" culture.

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