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The Great Ventriloquist


Like distant conversation, we hear his colleagues commenting on his pleasant nature, his industriousness, his avoidance of debauchery, his ability to write so fluently that he hardly ever had to make a correction. For someone living before diaries and journalism, Shakespeare as a man is reasonably well documented; though it’s also true that however much we find out about him, it will never be enough.


He was a country grammar-school boy, the son of barely literate parents, and he irritated the hell out of the university-trained writers he swiftly proceeded to eclipse in the London theatre. He belongs to a group of authors driven ever onwards by paternal failure – Dickens, Chekhov, Ibsen, Shaw: one of his few unmistakable wishes was to be able to do what his father had failed to do, purchase a coat of arms for the family. The handful of portraits are unrevealing, although the figure in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford suggests you wouldn’t want to cross him, especially if you were a tenant farmer on his land.


So this was a genius who minded his own business; or as he put it better, one who felt that his own nature had almost become “subdued/To what it works in, like the dyer’s hand”. It’s a modest enough description for the flood-tide of language that came out of him, as if in tongues: rapturous, turbulent, riotously funny and disarmingly simple. It trumpets and insinuates comforts and provokes, and we all have our favourites. It’s an equally modest way to account for these archetypal stories that we return to again and again in the theatre because the great struggles within them remind us of a hundred difficulties of our own, and because we see that he was familiar with psychological positions we though only Freud had uncovered.


Audiences want to see the best actors wrestle down the great parts, and compare their talents. But perhaps even more than that, we want to be part of the argument. Nowadays the body politic can be as engrossing a subject to us as the hero. There are passages in the history plays so shockingly topical – often on the subject of foreign policy – that audiences laugh bitterly aloud.


We specially love the subversion, when the tragic hero is tripped up by an ordinary someone going about their daily business, a Player, a Gravedigger or a Fool: or when the courtly Touchstone is put to shame by a working man whose great pride is to see “my ewes graze and my lambs suck”. We are more alert tan we were to the odd mixture of independence and tactical acquiescence in his women, and notice how they don’t become tragic icons with quite the same noisy regularity as the men, being less like fools. Becoming a tragic hero seems to involve behaving very stupidly at some point, and Shakespeare seems to see this as a male prerogative.


He could do the same thing in many different ways, as if he were trying to get at the truth from any number of angles. Within a year or so he wrote the heartbreaking farewells of Romeo and Juliet and what, oddly enough, can be equally moving for a moment, the lament of Flute as Thisbe in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, whose lover’s eyes were “green as leeks”. Rosalind finds a sunny love within her, but we become just as involved with the murky affections of Angelo, and Benedick’s foolish concern for his bachelorhood.


Above all, it’s impossible to escape from people who speak so directly to us. Shakespeare didn’t invent soliloquy, but he transformed its use, so that drama could never be hermetic again. It is his great means of implication: when the stage clears and a single figure turns to us – “Now I am alone” – we are forced into a contract that includes sympathy for the devil; for Macbeth, who unseams his enemies from the nave to the chaps, but can’t cope with the consequences of the one murder he really wanted to do: for Richard III, who by contrast finds it only too easy to. It’s the transgressors who share these confidences, not their victims: Iago, not Othello, who compulsively talks to the audience.


The characters’ debate with us and with each other is constant and transfixing. However beautiful the utterance, almost every line in Shakespeare is part of an ongoing argument. What shall I so now? Did you see that? How can I have let this happen? Introversion and secrecy come in later forms of theatre – Hamlet and Bottom share their intimate anxieties with disarming candour. Underneath, the bigger questions rumble. Is it possible to be a good leader and a good man? What are the human limits? Do the ends justify the shadowy means?


In this urgent conversation, we are encouraged to change sides as often as possible, but we are never allowed to sit on the fence. What there is almost nothing of is silence. Deep inside Hamlet’s famous line is a joke, since “rest” and “silence” are the last things we expect of him. A Shakespeare character who refuses to contribute to the clamour is as dead as someone in a radio discussion who can’t get a word in. When, at the end of Coriolanus, the hero is asked in a specific stage direction to hold his mother “by the hand, silent”, the effect is as startling as if an orchestral conductor suddenly lowered his baton in mid-bar. These men and women have to speak to find out what they feel: when they open their mouths, they are gifted with their author’s fluency and precision, and everything they stand for is out there to be debated.


We say Shakespeare is universal, but really that’s a figure of speech: to a large part of the world is as unlikely as a square meal. We say he is the great humanist, but he isn’t really that either: injustice is rampart in the plays, and dozens of characters go to undeserved deaths for theatrical effect without a trace of authorial regret. We say he understands the human condition; perhaps, but to many people his words must seem as irrelevant as those of some visiting statesman.


But in any community with the leisure or determination to clear a space in its midst for storytelling, Shakespeare, an ordinary man and not an intellectual, buttonholes is continually about what matters and what doesn’t. On a good night an audience leaves the din of opinion, appeasement, protest and reconciliation in an exhilarated state – alive, hugely entertained, ready for more healthy argument, more tolerant, less easily deceived. In the face of such benefits, it hardly matters that the expression of the man in the portrait remains blank. His work is an astonishing act of self-concealment that leaves the world more vibrant; we still don’t know a single one of his opinions, but he is present as white noise.



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