Why does Shakespeare matter?

Kiernan Ryan argues that it’s time to reclaim the
idea of Shakespeare’s universality from reactionary and radical misconceptions.

source of Shakespeare’s enduring appeal, and the reason why he still matters so
much, not just in his native land but all over the world, has been widely
regarded for centuries as his genius for dramatizing the timeless truths of the
universal human condition. The grip of this explanation on students, performers
and lovers of Shakespeare across the globe remains tenacious, despite recent
attempts to reject the idea of Shakespeare’s universality as a politically
pernicious myth.

For the
past 30 years the very idea has been taboo in academic circles. The overriding
aim of modern Shakespeare scholars has been to demonstrate that his drama was
not ‘for all time’, as Ben Jonson famously claimed, but ‘of an age’, and that
only by embedding it as deeply as possible in that vanished age can it be
properly understood. This aim is indivisible from their desire to dethrone a
conception of Shakespeare rightly seen as complicit in masking – and thus perpetuating
– social, sexual and racial injustice.

Nor has
that desire remained confined to the academy. The World Shakespeare Festival staged
at the Globe in 2012 provoked an angry article by Emer O’Toole in The Guardian, headed ‘Shakespeare,
universal? No, it’s cultural imperialism’. ‘Shakespeare is full of classism,
sexism, racism and defunct social mores’, fumed O’Toole. ‘The Taming of the Shrew is about as universally relevant as the
chastity belt’, while ‘The Merchant of
is about as universal as the Nuremberg laws.’ ‘So where’, O’Toole
asked, ‘has the idea that Shakespeare is “universal” come from? Why do people
the world over study and perform Shakespeare? Colonialism. That’s why.
Shakespeare was a powerful tool of empire, transported to foreign climes along
with the doctrine of European cultural superiority.’  

strident tone of O’Toole’s tirade may grate, but her assault on the notion that
his plays still matter because there’s something universal about the stories
they tell is as justified as her charge that their alleged universality played
a key role in making Shakespeare ‘a powerful tool of empire’. The contention
that The Taming of the Shrew, The Merchant of Venice, or any play by
Shakespeare is sure to enthral people in all times and places, whatever their
nationality, race, gender, language, creed or sexual orientation, because it
reflects a universal experience everyone can identify with, won’t stand up to
scrutiny for a moment.

drama plainly doesn’t hold a mirror up to the lives of everybody everywhere,
not least because the subject matter it dramatizes, the forms it takes, and the
language it uses stamp it immediately as the product of the place and period in
which it was written. In this respect, the campaign to historicize Shakespeare
and dispel the reactionary myth that’s clouded the perception of his plays deserves
to be applauded. The only problem with anti-universalist Bard-buffs and
Bard-bashers like O’Toole is that they haven’t stopped to wonder whether the
extraordinary persistence of Shakespeare’s international appeal is due to his
drama’s being ‘universal’ in a quite different, progressive sense ─ a sense
perfectly compatible with its anchorage in the age of Shakespeare.

As a result,
they’re incapable of explaining why the glove-maker’s lad from Stratford still
captivates audiences on every continent of the planet, while even the most
dazzling of his fellow dramatists do not. And that’s because they’re blind to
what empowers Shakespeare’s plays to dramatize his time from a standpoint
that’s still far ahead of our time: their profound commitment to the future emancipation
of humanity. What’s universal about Shakespeare’s drama is not the plights and
fates of his characters, but the visionary, egalitarian perspective from which
they are portrayed and we are invited to view them.

None of the plays is
more fiercely possessed by ‘the prophetic soul / Of the wide world dreaming on
things to come’ (Sonnet 107) than King Lear. In his supreme tragedy
Shakespeare forces an omnipotent monarch to feel what the ‘Poor naked wretches’
of his kingdom feel, and to realise that beneath his royal robes and a beggar’s
rags beats the heart of the same ‘bare, forked animal’. Through Lear’s
traumatic ordeal, the play demolishes the assumptions on which social division
and inequality depend. It climaxes in Lear’s snarl of contempt for all who claim
the right to impose their will on others: ‘there thou mightst behold the great
image of authority. A dog’s obeyed in office’. And in place of the drive to
divide, oppress and impoverish that destroys its protagonists, and that threatens our kind with destruction today,
King Lear
demands economic justice rooted in the fundamental kinship
of all human creatures: ‘So distribution should undo excess, / And each man
have enough.’

To grasp the true source of Shakespeare’s
universality is to grasp the real reason why the plays still move the heart and
fire the imagination four centuries after they were penned. Shakespeare matters
because his drama keeps the dream of revolutionary transformation alive.

Kiernan Ryan will be giving the next talk in our series of Sam Conversations, titled Shakespeare and Social Justice, in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse on Thursday 6 July. Find out more and buy tickets.


is Professor of English Language & Literature at Royal Holloway, University
of London and an Emeritus Fellow of Murray Edwards College, University of
Cambridge. His most recent books are Shakespeare’s Comedies and Shakespeare’s
Universality: Here’s Fine Revolution
. His next book, Shakespearean Tragedy, will be published
by Bloomsbury in 2018.