2017 – a tough year for Shakespeare?

I apologise for leaving this site languishing. While the winding up of 2016 – the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death – gave me a great deal to think about, it has all been too big or too small to translate to the page with any ease.

So, I finished my year of tracking all the Shakespeare things over at ShakespeareTwentyScore.org, having only succeeded in making a tiny proportion of what I wanted to happen, happen. The Margaret Project was a definite high point, with exciting though small-scale results. We saw great work being conjured out of nothing in Auckland and Perth, and in the form of the indomitable Sport for Jove setting up their Shakespeare Carnival for schools (I really hope this initiative flourishes as it deserves). Shakespeare Reloaded (Sydney University) and the Lost Plays Database (Melbourne University), not to mention the cutting-edge stylistics work going on at the University of Newcastle, have kept a handful of Australian players in this field in higher education. But I had hoped that I could be part of a shift towards reducing the time spent being forced to justify the very existence of these kinds of research and performance endeavours, and instead my instinct is that we are only having to do it more and more.

bare stage with 4 actors, young man kneels to be knighted with a sword.

Margaret of Anjou at the University of Notre Dame

In a time when we are all called to be activists it is hard to know how to approach a commitment to theatre or literature. I have always offered the loudest support to those who write about how important artists are in times of social crisis or need. A society without artists is a wasteland. But, in truth, there will always be artists, no one will find a way to make them stop being artists. The trickier question is, what becomes of a society that is hostile to artists? To one that marshals its forces to make life for artists as difficult as it possibly can? Such that those who pursue that life are stressed and despairing, and those who lack the luxury of economic stability from other sources are siphoned off into non-artistic fields.

The same questions are thistles in the feet of academia, and all intellectual pursuits. Growing up in country Australia I was familiar with default hostility to smart people before I knew there were places in the world that encouraged thought or difference, but believing I had left all that behind, I didn’t expect it to chase me down years later. Now those attitudes seem to be taking over everything, even the running of universities.

Actors on a bare stage, holding scripts.

Margaret of Anjou at the University of Notre Dame

While I still don’t doubt the value of Shakespeare, I doubt our ability in the present climate to convince anyone with power of that value. On a small canvas, watching or working on Shakespeare will continue to do all the great things it always does. It will give people confidence and a voice. It will forge a line connecting us to our humanity, get us talking about what matters to us, and give us the scope and language to do it. It will help us expand our self-expression – to think more, feel more, allow challenge and complexity into our lives. Teachers will be great, actors will be great, directors determined to scrape together co-op productions, and to build school extension programs will all continue to be fabulous. I think it will be a while, however, before we go through another cultural shift where this wonderful work is accorded general respect, or is considered worthy of institutional support.

I intend to continue behaving as if I have hope, because it’s the least I can do for my son, and for those who are making real sacrifices and taking genuine risks. Shakespeare I don’t have to worry about. Those plays will still be there, still being used by clever, talented people when I regroup and rejoin the fight.

2 thoughts on “2017 – a tough year for Shakespeare?

  1. I so hear you. I felt this way as a faculty member — i studied this subject exclusively for 8 years, you hired me to teach it for another eight, and NOW you think it’s irrelevant? Then I became an administrator trying to help staunch the wounds in the humanities, and I saw exactly how the money flows and the way that institutional units behave when they are under attack — not to preserve the diversity of their approach, but to go with what’s popular and “useful”. I will always be a humanist but I don’t know how much I can contribute any more to the preservation of the humanities when the university itself becomes hostile.

    • Thank you so much for giving your perspective. It helps a lot to know that I’m not the only one interpreting the climate in this way, or feeling its repercussions like this.

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