Saturday, June 30, 2007

Shakespeare & Co.

Reading that Shakespeare may no longer be compulsory for English undergraduates at Oxford ("Shakespeare in peril..." as the Independent has it)I'm tended to think it's a non-story. I studied English at Lancaster 85-8, and Shakespeare was nowhere to be seen in any compulsory sense, and I imagine that's true for the majority of degrees throughout the country. I did, it's true, take the one language course that included Shakespeare, but it was hardly a highlight of my studies. I was wanting to discover the British and American novel during those 3 years, and I did, without regretting that choice. Poetry in particular, and drama were minor interests at the time. Oxford undergraduates apparently have to study all 36 Shakespeare plays during their final year, which probably puts Shakespeare into the Readers Digest "condensed books" category. My in-depth study of a few Shakespeare plays at O and A level gave me a lifelong love for the bard, that I occasionally top up. Last week, I saw The Tempest for the first time at the Royal Exchange. It's absurd that I'd never seen or read it before - but, being Shakespeare there were few resonances I didn't notice. It's an absurd play, though a thoroughly enjoyable performance, and my real regret here was not having read it before, but not having the kind of classical education where I might fitfully place "The Tempest", surely one of his most Greek of plays? Recent books and films have tried to place Shakespeare in his historical context, and I like him all the more for it. Some of the pyrotechnics of "The Tempest" seemed like an old writer grappling with the new fangled "sensationalism" of younger writers. I've always enjoyed Webster, and have more recently enjoyed Ben Jonson and Marlowe - it seems that the less Shakespeare that an undergraduate gets, the more he or she may seek him out. Along with the King James Bible, the Complete Works is one of the twin pillars of English Literature. Of course, it may be that you can now go through from 13-21 without a sniff of Shakespeare, in which case, I'd have to ask, why are you doing an English degree? My own love of the 18th/19th century English novel or the 20th century American novel doesn't invalidate my debt to the great dramatist - nor stop an interest in his contemporaries.

No comments: