Not even cyanide spoils a drink with a friend faster than discovering he’s in love. That’s when you buy yourself a triple; you know you’re in for an evening of ridiculous superlatives, and specious speculation. And you’ll listen to all of it aware that when, or if, you ever meet this paragon they will never be as perfect, sexy or brilliant as the hype. No one could be. The idea of the loved one, in their absence, is always more exciting than any reality. It’s the fisherman’s “one that got away” or Donald Trump’s genius; we fill the vacuum of absence with everything from the improbable to the impossible, the stuffing of legend. By the time you’re getting your second drink, trying to draw out the order for as long as possible by feigning an interest in third division football with the bar staff, you’re not sure how much more fantasising you can take as it’s all just air and you’re finding it really hard to give a s**t.
That’s how I feel when people start talking about Shakespeare. And, what with this month being the 400th anniversary of his death, it might just be, as T.S. Eliot would have it, the cruellest.
Don’t get me wrong I love a bit of Shakespeare me: I came of age enrapt with Withnail asking the London Zoo wolves, “What a piece of work is a man?”;
I can see why Shakespeare’s responsible for a tenth of the most quoted lines in English ever; the words are sublime, the poetry mesmeric, the drama… well, not exactly captivating but epic, definitely epic; I spent a year of my degree studying his works; I’ve indulged the pretensions of Day-Lewis, Branagh, Gibson, Tennant, Cumberbatch and even Frances de la Tour trying to play that morbidly articulate Danish teenager, decades their junior; I even committed some of his more sonorous soliloquies to heart believing a little bit of “shall I compare thee” might lend me an air of culture and fill awkward silences on dates – a misapprehension which, I later discovered, almost entirely accounted for my remaining a complete stranger to the taste of postprandial coffee, the 20th century “Netflix and Chill”.
But that’s not why the mention of Shakespeare makes me feel “I would give all my fame for a pot of ale.”
In leaving his works without an in-depth CV of his life, not even a kiss and tell exposé, Shakespeare created a perfect vacuum. An absence of details which our information hungry, celebrity life curious, age abhors.
Ever since the 19th Century the idea of Shakespeare, the mystery of the man himself, has gradually eclipsed his works. Now, outside the academic world, no Shakespeare conversation is complete without a discourse on identity. Not the identity crises evident in his almost Mengele-like obsession with twins, nor his “To be or not to be”, not even his gender challenging drag acts, but just, “Was that William Shakespeare William Shakespeare or what?”
This severing of the man from his work started with the Victorians, with their passion for propriety and hierarchies. It just wouldn’t send the right message to the lower orders to allow a grammar school oik to have moulded the language of empire, let alone invented 3000 of its words. So into the void of Will’s life new, elite, posh candidates suddenly looked more attractive. He could only know this if he went to University, he could only know that if he had travelled, was a sailor, a tree surgeon, a spy or royal privy sanitiser. Names were aplenty while William Shakespeare of Warwickshire became simply “The Stratford Man”.
You’d have thought, by now, with our enlightened view of bare table legs, we’d have moved on from Victorian snobbery. But the “Authorship Question” has continued to escalate, even becoming a Hollywood film. In 2011 Anonymous cast Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford as the true writer.
So Shakespeare turns out to be, pretty much, the only secular figure to transcend into a meme, an idea that has evolved as it has passed through generations. And I can see the attraction. It’s a lot more exciting to imagine and speculate about an absence rather than go mine those old texts for yet further depth and meaning. But I can’t help feeling it’s like enjoying a steak whilst arguing about the name of the cow.
But it’s almost 50 years since goggle-eyed Gallic literary critic Roland Barthes declared “La mort de l’auteur” dampening enthusiasm for the Hello school of biographical criticism and championing the appreciation of art for its own sake; rather than as some misshapen reflection of the writer.
So don’t talk to me about Shakespeare without buying me a stiff drink first. Any story of his life is going to be little more than “sound and fury, signifying nothing.” When we have secular words so transcendent they still feel fitting at our significant life events, births, weddings and funerals (if not embarrassing dates), when the subtle shades of our enlightened world are threatened by the brutal certainties of ISIS style medieval thinking that will flatten a Palmyra, knowing that at some time, someone, was bothered and able to express the tenets of the modern world as poignantly as: “The quality of mercy is not strained; It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest; It blesseth him that gives and him that takes: ‘T is mightiest in the mightiest;” I just can’t find it in me to care who he, or she, was. And I don’t care when he was born or when he died or who he was sending his poetry to. Who was Shakespeare? In a few words he didn’t coin, I really couldn’t giveth two shiteths.
First published in