Shakespeare: is it good for you?

Ben Whishaw as Richard II, directed by Rupert Goold

There is Shakespeare on TV tonight. The good news is there has been plenty of coverage and it’s very very good. The bad news is the press, as always, behave like Shakespeare is something to endure. Undoubtedly good for you, but mildly unpleasant.

Sam Wollaston, in his review of Julius Caesar at the Guardian earlier this week, writes: “I’ve never had the easiest relationship with the Bard. Even now, aged however old I am, I find it hard not to associate him more with homework than with a good time.”

If that was a random comment, it would mean nothing. But it comes back again and again: people who are employed to comment on the arts (and given the precarious job market for journalists and newspaper critics, I would expect these people to be at the top of their game) put up their hand and say “I don’t get Shakespeare”.

To which I say: “What there is to get?”. There are good Shakespeare productions and bad Shakespeare productions. There are even Shakespeare plays not as good as others. There are Shakespeare plays I like less. The point is you can’t get anything out of an experience unless it’s personal to you. And it can’t be personal if it’s just “good for you”.

Mike Mulvihill, in his preview of The Hollow Crown season on BBC2, writes at the Times: “I’m sure there are many of you for whom four two-and-a-half hour films on the Bard’s work won’t be the most appealing prospect. But even if you dozed off during O-Level English at school, you should give them a try”.

In fact, unless you are genuinely curious or excited, I ‘d say don’t bother. The Bard doesn’t need you and you don’t need him. One day, something will grab your attention (as the blood and sword fighting in Hamlet got mine when I was ten), and you will want more. Shakespeare geeks are among the most excitable fans I have ever met. Shakespeare inspires that kind of passion. That passion is far more important than something “that’s good for you”.

2 responses to “Shakespeare: is it good for you?

  1. Spot on! I’ve only seen the BBC’s new version of Richard II so far and loved it. Did you catch Jonathan Slinger’s 2007 RSC interpretation of the role, by the way?

    • Sadly no, I didn’t see Jonathan Slinger, who was fantastic by all accounts. Actually I missed the whole RSC History season, big mistake. But I always thought my love for theatre is fuelled equally by the things I see and the things I miss, the ultimate reminder that theatre is like real life, you have to be present and alert, you can’t catch up at your leisure.

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