Shakespeare’s Betters

It was not just to earn a few spare millions and world acclaim that my frequent collaborator Denny Lawrence and I, over twenty-five days of two Christmas breaks, co-wrote in rainy heat our genial confection Shakespeare in Italy wherein young Will is recruited in Rome as a Papist spy by Peretti, Pope Sixtus V, inventor of waterboarding. It was also to show that workaday writers like us could do it: could forge, in adequate Bankside fustian, a pastoral-historical-tragical-comical revel as good as at least a few of Will of Stratford’s. And early reviews, one from John Bell, one from Bruce Beresford, one from John Ralston Saul, suggest we brought it off.

Will Shakespeare – whoever he was – has for too long stood in a circle of silence with a halo above his head as the godlike puppeteer of gigantic flawed heroes, a creative titan above and beyond the damns and cavils that attend upon, say, Baz Lurhman. He is largely faceless, always mysterious, and far removed from our hisses, flung fruit, foyer sneers and Monday morning quarterbacking. He knew it all, we are told, and you’d better believe it, buster. He knew it all.

But when they are looked at closely a lot of his works are not as good as works by other playwrights in his language. The Crucible, by Arthur Miller, whose narrative, theme and linguistic sinew rivals (and, I think, betters) both Will’s problem plays Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida, must be therefore said to be in his league. And Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons is clearly a good deal better than his (co-written) Tragedy of Sir Thomas More and his own (co-written) Henry VIII.

Bruno Heller’s Rome television series outflanks likewise all five of his Roman plays (Titus, Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Cymbeline) and betters them in impact, structure, narrative swiftness and female sympathy. And Love, Actually, dare I say, is up there with Twelfth Night, on a very high pinnacle indeed. Or am I wrong?

Pushing it further, I would rank Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman above the Yorkshire Tragedy, another study of maddened middle-class suicide; Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal above The Tempest;  Ray Cooney’s Run For Your Wife above A Comedy of Errors, another fast-moving mistaken-identity farce of love misplaced and regained; and Timberlake Wertembaker’s Our Country’s Good, pound for pound, as a fair deal more accomplished, I think, as tragical-comical-pastoral-historical, than Much Ado About Nothing.

Why, then, the fuss? Why such craven obeisance as weekly clogs with clamorous revivalist bardolatry good theatre spaces that might else unveil the next O’Malley, or the next Away, or Victory, or Nickleby, or Paul, or Travesties, or Dead White Males? Why do we persist with this crook-kneed cringeing piety when there is better writing to be done, better plays to be imagined, put on, uplifted, praised?

Martin McDonagh, with The Cripple of Inishmaan, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, The Pillowman and In Bruges, has done work of constant, glowing, mesmeric Shakespeare standard. Howard Barker’s Victory and Howard Brenton’s Paul and David Edgar’s Nicholas Nickleby (adapted, yes, like many a Shakespeare work, from another text) are in the league. Sondheim’s Assassins, Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods, knock Richard II, Troilus and Pericles, in my view, into a cocked hat. Les Miz outclasses easily all of Henry VI. And yet we piously persist, like Mecca pilgrims, on our knees in front of this Clopton shoplifter’s flabby-faced graven image. Why?


Well, part of it is to do with the King James Bible, which many of our ancestors thought had magical properties, and would if read and pondered secure them eternal life. And when World War 1 put paid to a lot of its crazed, sacrificial theology, and loved lost sons killed on the Somme could not be contacted in seances, a writer who told in similar cadence what some now call ‘fairy tales for adults’, the sonorous reverent piety thus lost by the Judeo-Christian Book Of Everything moved over to Shakespeare, a secular Old Testament soon taught in schools.

And on top of this came the genius that Gielgud, Olivier, Guthrie,  Guiness,Richardson, Redgrave, Scofield, Burton, Brando, Welles, Hall, Brook, Bell, Branagh, Streep,  Sims, Finney, McKellen, Geoffrey Rush, Bille Brown, Googie Withers, Emma Thompson, Peggy Ashcroft, Fiona Shaw and, yes, Rowan Atkinson and his faithful Baldrick added to words long reverenced with intonations, winks and twitches of their own. ‘Shakespeare’ became the sum of all their parts and grew in stature with each fresh incrementation, even those of Luhrman, Radford, Wright, Kosintsev, Sellars, Simon Phillips and Joseph Mankiewicz. Shakespeare, whoever he was, became more than himself. He became a piled-up groaning mountain of amendments and elucidations. We see not his Antony but Brando now, not his Shylock but Al Pacino’s.

But it is wrong, I believe, to think of him in this way. Fiddler On The Roof (on stage, with Topol), is better than thirty-two of his plays, Morgan: A Suitable Case For Treatment a worthy down-market update of Hamlet, Guys and Dolls streets ahead of its rival gambler’s-wager-romance Love’s Labour’s Lost. And Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, as I have said before, boasts, as a rule, better English and better death-anguished soliloquies.

In Shakespeare In Italy we have interwoven sonnets by me and Will with speeches under the Sistine Chapel, and in the confessional under sentence off death, he might have given. Those who come and see it may embrace it, or disdain it, or not see the point, but they will be struck I think by its intimate
linguistic resemblance to the Bard and may then wonder if this dead white male is as good as he is cracked up to be.

(For any twenty-five minutes of In Treatment is better than any twenty-five minutes of Timon of Athens; discuss. Most Lake Wobegon riffs by Garrison
Keilor scrub up as better soliloquies than O That This Too Too Solid Flesh; compare and contrast. Shakespeare In Love outclasses The Two Noble Kinsman at every turn; please consider. Anonymous runs rings around A Winter’s Tale; all those in favour?)

John Bell in the SMH put a plausible case for the Stratford Man (his daughters’ literacy, his father’s money, his round-the-clock Latin schooling, his eavesdropper’s arras-peephole on Elizabeth’s court) which does not, however, smash or wound or much harm the Oxford theory. It may well be that Jonson, Webster, Beaumont, Burbage, Kempe, Ford, Greene and Henslowe thought he wrote indeed what he’d put his name to and toasted him unknowing, as others did Ira Gershwin for lyrics by P.G. Wodehouse in less skulduggerous midnights on old Broadway.

Because, as James Murdoch proved the day before, there are many secret things that happen that one’s front-of-house underlings may not have bestirred themselves to know of: who killed the little princes; who sired Henry VII; whether the ‘Virgin Queen’ (an ironical nickname, surely) had multiple secret adopted and nobly unbastardized babies; whether Bloody Mary’s wind-swollen false pregnancies were due to ovarian cancer or mere hereditary syphilis; or, as we say now, ‘the placebo effect’, an unstoppable belief that she was pregnant when she was not; whether Bess’s deathbed cession of the Crown to James was achieved by Cecil’s forgery, or not; and so on.

In an age so rich in hugger-mugger, lost wills and secret murders, it is not beyond the wit of a vigorous burrowing scholar thus to imagine a lofty courtier scribbling in secret by lamplight on many a rueful midnight plays that went by courier to another house and into a theatre that earned the acclaim of centuries.

Or perhaps you disagree.

(This article was rejected by Unleashed)