I went down to Bowral a month ago and experienced over two pleasured weekends a part, not all, of the Shakespeare Festival there. King Lear in Corbett Gardens. Hamlet in a Mittagong gymnasium (with a resurrected naked Ophelia slowly drenched in blood at evening’s end). A grunting and eye-bulging Samurai in a version of Macbeth called Crown of Blood. A beautiful green-shaded BBC Twelfth Night and Al Pacino’s rough-cast Richard III in the Empire Cinema. Matthew O’Sullivan’s enthralling meditation Shakespeare’s Journey in the Federation church where the young Don Bradman sang high and sweet once in the choir. Trefor Gare’s pratfalling monodrama The King’s Player (part Stoppard, part Marceau, part circus clown) in, yes, the Bradman Museum. Shakespeare, Shylock and Hanson (the trial scene, with brutish redneck interruptions) in a farmyard corral. The Sonnets in gentle erotic duet in a stately house among green hills. Tim Page’s brash cabaret From Bard to Broadway (the modern songs and comedy routines, like those in Kiss Me Kate, derived from Shakespeare in tumbling bawdy collage). A fresh, arousing Taming of the Shrew in the park, round the Springett cupola, under southern stars…
I had a terrific time, although I missed The Musicke and The Proposal Scenes and A Great Reckoning in a Little Room, a suspense drama on Marlowe’s murder, and although every uttered line I heard was at least half known to me I never once nodded off, or even yawned.
A few things should be said.
One is that the architecture of Bowral – Victorian, Federation, Georgian sandstone, its autumn parks and white picket fences and art deco coffee houses and pensive bookshops and melancholy churchyards and weeping-willowy creekbanks – makes a celebration of great poetic writing possible in a way that the concrete-and-fibro structures of, say, Penrith or Kogarah, and their seedy neon streets, cannot.
This in turn means, of course, that the Economic Rationalists (and it’s not, I think, too long a bow to draw), who regard all such elaborate architectural display, with its wasteful scrolls and columns, as culpably extravagant, are, as always, wrong again. Because Bowral shows not only that money can be generated by aesthetic pleasure and architectural beauty but also (not that such things matter any more) by human joy and civic pride. (Extravagance, indeed, nearly always brings, with tourism, riches once unimagined, discuss: I cite the Taj Mahal and the Sistine Chapel – and the Big Pineapple – and rest my case.)
And so in Bowral, too, there will soon be galleries and theme parks and costume exhibitions and Shakespeare Summer Schools and an actors’ academy and, yes, jobs for young people as ushers and scene shifters and cleaners when the mines and cement works and slaughterhouse close for good and the drought-seared farms are cut up in blocks for sale as nouveau suburbs. There is money, in short, in snob standards and the brandishing of high culture and, as the tourism figures for Rome, Stratford, Bayreuth yearly show, there always was. And the Economically Correct are wrong, as always: they who would for sure have made Will downsize his plays to three characters, or two. Caesar and Brutus and Antony. Why any more? Hamlet and Claudius, with Claudius doubling as the Ghost. Why any more? Save money. Save money.
The second thing that should be said (and asked) is why he is genuinely popular and not just snob-popular (watch the little kids in the park who run around at interval but when the play is on sit silently absorbed). One theory is that he has only one theme; and it’s the most universal theme there is.
This is that we are each of us given a role, and it’s a role that we fail to play very well, and tragedy (or farce) ensues. Thus Hamlet, an adequate moody student, is a poor avenging assassin. Brutus, an adequate moody philosopher, is a poor coup leader. Lear an adequate anointed king but a poor elder statesman. Macbeth a good serving soldier but a disastrous usurping murderer. Viola a poor boy. Malvolio an able butler but a fatuous gallant wooer. Othello a brilliant field marshal but an over-watchful spouse and the too-trusting boss (like Whitlam) of his crafty lieutenant. Falstaff a jovial tavern roisterer but a raucous, unwelcome palace consultant. Orlando a superb wrestler but a fat-headed love sonneteer. And so on. Shakespeare revives our pained memories of being made to stand up in class and recite, or sing on stage, or catch a football and run for the tryline with it, in vain. The terror. The shame. The crowd’s catcalls. Oh that this too too solid flesh would melt. Howl, howl, howl…
There’s a third thing that should be said, and it’s this. Shakespeare not only had the largest vocabulary of any good English writer, he also had the biggest emotional vocabulary, and his work is a gigantic trove of emotions that, but for him, we might not now still know of, nor feel so keenly even yet. Courtly love. The love, not necessarily homosexual, of man for man. The scalding, envenomed love of old lovers when they meet again. The radiant sorrows of kingship. That sense of honour that is worth dying for, by one’s own hand. Ambition that will dare all, defying the gods. Young love so strong it must, like Juliet’s, end in death. The love of a man like Antony for a dead ally he must bloodily avenge. The desire to howl and curse under bad weather. The welling fear of madness in oneself and others. The guilts that materialise as ghosts over dinner.
And so on. The list is large; he gave us a Sistine-size canvas of emotions that without his word music might now be lost to us, a tonal range of emotional melody we might be otherwise deaf to. It’s fair to say I think (and this is not a long bow either) that people unacquainted with Shakespeare live starved and meagre lives.
Some schools would ban him for political incorrectness, but they miss the point, which is that with his great enlargements of those fitful things we sometimes feel – in the cool of the night, in the stirrings of youth, the carps and cursing of age – he maps and enumerates our species as no other. No politician, and no businessman, who evades or ignores him is worthy of his trade. And no human being that lives without him, and his majestic illuminations of our life on earth, lives well.