Saturday, 26 April 2008

Literary "relevance"

Have got ten minutes to fill between hospital visits, so thought I'd rant about something - it's always therapeutic. What neither hospitals nor G.P.s ever tell you is that Alf Garnett was the most physically healthy character ever invented - ranting is good for your health.

Anyway, this morning, before toddling off to the "orspital," I saw on the BBC News an article about a guy who's released a book which retells Shakespeare's plays in "contemporary" language (e.g. using text-speak, street slang, etc. etc.). Now, this has been done many thousands of times before, and I've got nothing against it, per se. There's nothing new in Shakespeare studies (whatever the academics say), and no doubt Will isn't turning in his grave (innit). One possible reaction to the story is: so what?

Another reaction is the slight nagging worry about the explanation given for the new book - i.e. that it will enhance Shakespeare's "relevance." Shakespeare's olde-worlde language is a bit long in the tooth, so it needs brushing up, Ali G-ing, and selling (selling being the operative word) to a new generation.

I have two problems with this common point of view: firstly, it is patronising towards the young. It assumes that the young have less capacity to appreciate Shakespeare than previous generations. It assumes that they can only talk, understand and appreciate idioms of their own time and contexts. It assumes, in short, that they are stupider than people of previous ages.

Secondly, this point of view is patronising towards Shakespeare. It assumes that Shakespeare wrote "timeless" stories and scenarios (the one thing, in fact, that he didn't - as is well known, most of the stories are not his own); but his language is archaic, obsolete, irrelevant and out of place in the modern world.

The problem is that, without his language, Shakespeare isn't Shakespeare. Shakespeare IS his language (after all, as I've said, his stories and many of his characters are often not his own). Get rid of his language - substitute a faux-contemporary idiom - and you have precisely nothing. You certainly don't have the Shakespeare of Hamlet's soliloquies, Othello's anguish, Prospero's musings, Anthony and Cleopatra's love-makings ....

And "relevance"? Why on Earth do people bang on and on about relevance, particularly with Shakespeare (but also with Mozart, Blake, Beethoven, Shaw, Tennyson, Dickens and anyone else you care to mention who has surely proved over and over again that he or she doesn't need special pleading)? The Arts Nobbling Councils (as Douglas Adams called them), the LEAs, and the government education strategies of the world bang on and on about relevance, whilst relevance itself trundles along, taking no notice, humming a Mozartian tune.

What these people don't seem to realise is that relevance isn't about forcing Shakespeare into contemporary contortions. Relevance isn't about making Shakespeare relevant to now. I mean, who wants to be relevant to now? Now is crap. Let's try and transcend now, imagine a better now, imagine a world beyond, before, or after now. Art that's relevant to now will get precisely nowhere: it will be forgotten tomorrow, along with the thousands of anti-gun-crime, just-say-no, don't-have-unprotected-sex-or-binge-drink musicals churned out by committees and funded by government quangos.

Art shouldn't be relevant to now. Art, as William Blake realised, should try and destroy now because (frankly) it's rubbish. Art should reach out beyond relevance. In fact, the very best art, the art of geniuses like Shakespeare, turns the question of relevance inside out: rather than making Shakespeare relevant for us, we should make ourselves relevant for Shakespeare - we should try and make ourselves worthy of him. To put it another way, rather than asking what Shakespeare can do for us, we should ask what we can do for Shakespeare ....

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