John Elsom*

I want to enter a large subject through a side door: Shakespeare’s puns. Richard Eyre, once the director of our National Theatre, was asked by his tutor at Cambridge, Kingsley Amis, whether he found the jokes in Twelfth Night very funny and he was forced to admit that they were not. Some topical allusions passed him by and others were the kind of puns that we associate in Britain with Christmas crackers—of all forms of humour the lowest. Scholars make excuses for them and if possible, directors cut the text. But Shakespeare persisted with them. They belonged to his stock-in-trade.

Old-style comics often handled his puns better than trained actors, such as the late lamented Frankie Howerd, who could squeeze a laugh from a bad joke simply because it was a bad joke. They played around with words. “I was flabbergasted,” Frankie would say, raising his eyebrows to the top of his head, “my flabber has never been so gasted!” Anyone who read a joke like that a generation later and looked up words like “flabber” and “gasted” in an English dictionary would be completely puzzled. Why was that so funny?

This illustrates the gulf between words for live performance and words to be read as a text, which are separate languages, however closely they may be related. We can only guess at how Shakespeare’s audiences would have responded to his puns, but we can be sure that their reactions would have been different from our own. During the 17th century, the use of the English language changed, so that only two generations later, the poet John Dryden, who admired Shakespeare, complained about his archaic and obscure use of words.

The transformation of the language reflected a wider change of outlook between those like Shakespeare who were born before the Age of Reason and those who were born after it. The 17th century was an age of terrifying upheaval, in which the reform of the English language played its part. In 1604, the first English dictionary was published, starting the cataloguing process that led to Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary more than a century later. There was a strong drive to make English conform to the spelling and syntax of the classical languages.

By the end of the century, the schoolboy ancestors of Richard Eyre were snobbish about puns, because they were thought to mess up meanings of words at a time when clarity of definition was considered all-important. There were other cultural shifts. Astrology, the core academic discipline for centuries, declined until it was little more than a parlour game for the credulous. In the late 1690s, the pre-publication censorship of books fell into decline and the print laws were liberalized, which led to a publishing revolution akin to the arrival of the Internet. The balance of power shifted from the spoken to the written word.

By the end of the 17th century, Shakespeare had become a name from the past, revered but linked with Homer. Few critics failed to point out how old-fashioned he was. Dryden said that he had the “largest and most comprehensive soul of poesy,” but pointed out “some errors not to be avoided in his time.”  In 1681, Nahum Tate gave King Lear a happy and more moral ending, for Tate, like Samuel Johnson, criticized Shakespeare for his political incorrectness. Classical theory dictated that good should triumph even in tragedy, though the hero might die through some character flaw. As a dramatic principle, this survives today in most murder mysteries; and through classical storytelling, we still confirm or re-set our moral compasses.

But Shakespeare’s old-time critics were suspicious. They wanted to know what Shakespeare really meant. What were his true opinions? It became a rationalist obsession that persisted over generations. Did he believe in ghosts, the Divine Right of kings, astrology or even God? Was he being evasive? If so, why? Bernard Shaw, another admirer, wanted to dig up his bones so that he could throw stones at them.

Bernard Shaw [Bernard Shaw wanted to dig up Shakespeare's bones so that he could throw stones at them]
Bernard Shaw wanted to dig up Shakespeare’s bones so that he could throw stones at them
The emotional power of his plays was not in doubt, but many feared that this strength, like a tidal current, was dragging them back to a time when in England a king was beheaded, a civil war was fought, 300,000 people were killed from a population of five million and much of London was destroyed in a fire. But from that wreckage, a new classically inspired city was being built, ruled by a new constitutional monarchy with a new parliament with newly-won freedoms, and London was becoming the new trading capital of Europe. Within a hundred years of Shakespeare’s death, there was a new nation, whose outlines are familiar to us. It was the start of modern Britain.

But Shakespeare was pre-modern. He was living at a time when the hopes and ideas that have shaped our world were being born. He monitored the birth pangs. He paced the corridor. He listened to the gossip in the court, colleges and streets; and left us with a clear reflection of a time when our culture was changing from a medieval to a recognizably modern outlook.

Something was lost in this evolutionary process that made him more of a stranger to us, his successors, than we are prepared to admit. T.S. Eliot touched on the subject, when he wrote about the “unification of sensibility” that characterized the Elizabethans, as opposed to the “dissociation of sensibility” that came later, “from which we have yet to recover.” Shakespeare condensed ideas and images in a way that often seems strange to us: it goes the grain of the way in which we use language. His associative logic fell out of fashion during the Age of Reason, because so-called Augustans, like Dryden, wanted words to be precise and to say what they mean.  They admired the beauty of his language, but not his mode of reasoning.

T.S. Eliot [T.S. Eliot wrote about about the “unification of sensibility” that characterized the Elizabethans, as opposed to the “dissociation of sensibility” that came later.]
T.S. Eliot wrote about the “unification of sensibility” that characterized the Elizabethans, as opposed to the “dissociation of sensibility”
that came later
An example is the pun. A pun compresses meanings. Sonnet 138 is an illustration. It starts “When my love swears that she is made of truth. . . .” with its pun on “maid” and “made” and ends with “Therefore I lie with her and she with me, and in our faults by lies we flattered be,” which is part-pun and part-religious-homily. Shakespeare was far less worried than we or the Augustans might be about ambiguities, non-sequiturs or words with many meanings.

In King Lear, there is a line: “My fool usurps my body,” spoken by Goneril, after her lover Edmund has left her and before the arrival of her husband Albany. What did she mean? The Elizabethan word “fool” could mean a clown, a risky lover, a foolish person, a village idiot or folly, particularly sexual folly, and so it could refer to Edmund, Albany or to her own longings. In David Hare’s production for our National Theatre, it was simplified for the sake of clarity. “A fool” meaning Albany “usurps my bed.” It was given one meaning, but how much more effective the line becomes if it is allowed to accumulate meanings, from the toy-boy Edmund to Albany to Goneril herself in a ripple of understanding as the audience picks up all the hints. Can this be done today? Rarely in straight theatre, but it can happen in stand-up comedy, when someone like Frankie Howerd leads us on from one bad joke to another.

Shakespeare’s associative logic builds up meanings, often self-contradictory ones, as if, like a skilful politician, he was seeking to reflect a diversity of opinion rather than one point of view. The same word or incident might be received differently by his members of his audiences, some of whom believed in ghosts and others who might not. As with language, so with plots. His stories can seem confusing with digressions and characters who appear once and never again, but in doing so, Shakespeare may have been, in an old music hall expression, “working the house.”

Our temptation is to get rid of these confusions, and to update the action, so that Romeo and Juliet becomes a story of the two young lovers from opposite gangs in Belfast or New York. The parental worries of the Capulets—Is Juliet too young to marry? Will she get a better offer?—are pushed into the unlit corners of the stage. Who cares about Elizabethan matchmaking? But Shakespeare did and there would be anxious parents among his audiences. The danger with trying to make Shakespeare topical and more of our contemporary is that we lose his insights into the pre-modern world that was rapidly turning into our own.

JAN KOTT [Jan Kott, the writer of the influential study Shakespeare Our Contemporary.]
Jan Kott, the writer of the influential study Shakespeare Our Contemporary
Jan Kott, who wrote Shakespeare Our Contemporary, rarely made that mistake. He was an ironic writer. He called the title of his book “his little provocation.” His first target was “doublet-and-hosiery,” the cod-Elizabethan extravaganzas that once passed off as Shakespearian. Another was the German critics. Since Lessing, they had talked about the “universality” of Shakespeare, how his values were true of all men at all times. Since one value in Nazi Germany was the hatred of the Jews, Kott, a Jew himself, felt entitled to protest.

He did so in a Kott-like way by poking fun at them. German critics thought of Shakespeare’s “universality” in terms of grand passions and elemental moral dilemmas. Kott brought them down to earth. If Shakespeare was so universal, he had to be our contemporary as well and living through the Jacobean slaughter-house of the twentieth century. Kott was a survivor. His auto-biography tells of his own perilous existence under the Nazis and the Soviets; and his anecdotes, including how Beria, Stalin’s hatchet man, was murdered, could have come straight from Titus Andronicus. The cruelty, treachery and stark contrast between good and evil were much the same. But that did not make Shakespeare our contemporary.

Where Kott pointed the way, others followed, until it seemed as if the whole Shakespearian canon was being used as a metaphor for our times. It was a way of getting around the censor. If a director pinned an Uncle Joe moustache on Richard III, he had a diatribe against Stalin. In the West, Shakespeare’s plays acted like a sponge which absorbed the issues of our time. If Shakespeare’s story did not fit the point that the director was trying to make, it was changed, so that Caliban became a noble savage and Katherine the Shrew a feminist freedom fighter.

This was broad-brush politics and very broad-brush Shakespeare, but Kott was more subtle. During the 1960s and ‘70s, when Kott was at the height of his influence, Hamlet was played as a student revolutionary, similar to those who were causing trouble in Paris and Chicago, like Warner’s Hamlet at Stratford or Vladmir Vysotsky’s in Moscow. Vysotsky even carried a guitar. But Kott pointed out that Hamlet and Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus went to the same university in Wittenburg, where Luther pinned his 95 Theses. Its university was famous for its free-thinking, a centre of much controversy for the generation of Shakespeare’s parents. Although Hamlet did not conspire with the devil like Faustus, he came from what we might call a humanist background, who is confronted by the ghosts in which he has been taught not to believe. “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.”

Hamlet the play is a balancing trick of contradictions. You have to accept the possibility of an after-life and/or there is none; that old Hamlet is a ghost and/or a figment of the imagination; and that for practical reasons we have to choose between these opposites, even though we cannot do so. Prince Hamlet’s indecision may have been because he was too sensitive, which was Goethe’s view, or because he was an adolescent in love with his mother, which was Jonathan Miller’s; but such explanations fade into insignificance beside the salient fact that the Christian universe, as seen by Rome, was slowly coming apart and its loss was felt in the hearts of all its previous believers. What should they do now?

“To be or not to be” is a powerful expression of that existential agony, flanked some ninety years before by Luther’s “Here I stand. . . . God help me, I can do no more!” and some thirty years later by Descartes’ “Cogito ergo sum”—“I think, therefore I am.” Having once been part of a natural order, pre-ordained by God and administered by the Church, they were now on their own and struggling to survive with only the guidance of their personal consciences. The very existence of the soul and the prospects of a life after death, good or bad, were in doubt.

The source of this upheaval was neither a pagan god nor Islam, which was hovering on the borders of the Christian empire, but the re-discovery and publication in Latin of Plato’s dialogue Timaeus in the 15th Century, of a similar distance to Shakespeare’s time as Darwin’s Origin of the Species is from ours. In it, Plato discussed Pythagoras and his theory that the world could be expressed in terms of numbers. It was the start of what became the scientific revolution, although the sciences and the arts were not kept apart, as they are today.

Mathematics described the physical world without the intuitive guesswork that characterized popular and clerical opinion alike. It transformed the arts of painting and music. Throughout Shakespeare’s plays, there is the sense of wonder at the work of artists, who added mathematical calculation to their skills, the newly-discovered perspective that brought paintings to life and the newly-tuned instruments, whose music entranced an island. Mathematics worked. It was useful and practical. It improved maps and predicted the movement of the planets and stars more accurately than astrology.

It helped Galileo convincingly to place the sun and not the earth at the centre of our universe and so divided church opinion. The trial of Galileo for heresy took place in 1615, the year before Shakespeare’s death, and he may not have heard the verdict. He would probably have heard of Galileo himself, perhaps through John Florio, the polymath who translated Montaigne. Shakespeare, who was born in the same year as Galileo, fully understood with John Donne, eight years younger, that “the new philosophy calls all in doubt.”

Shakespeare would not have heard of another near-contemporary, born in 1596, who became known the father of European philosophy. René Descartes was a mathematician, an optical scientist and a philosopher, as well as being a Catholic living in the Protestant Holland. He reconciled the empirical sciences with a belief in God in a way that was both radical and traditional. One key element was the separation of publicly provable facts, “objectivity,” from private intuitions, “subjectivity.” His views provided the basis for the rationalist enquiry, which we call the Enlightenment, leading towards the Industrial Revolution and our modern world.

René Descartes [René Descartes reconciled the empirical sciences with a belief in God in a way that was both radical and traditional]
René Descartes reconciled the empirical sciences with a belief in God in a way that was both radical and traditional
After Descartes, opinions became more “evidence-based” with the fashion of the times. Writers distinguished between fact and feeling, fact and fiction, fact and motive, with the priority given to “objective” facts as opposed to “subjective” opinion, a distinction that may be said to characterize Western culture today. It is the key example of T.S. Eliot’s “dissociation of sensibility.” Science, it has been said, has no conscience. It is right, wrong or theoretical; and was responsible both for the technical progress and the massacres of the 20th century.

Shakespeare would have drawn the line differently between truth and error, truth and fancy, truth and motive, for truth combines the idea of factual accuracy with spiritual probity. You may be factually correct but if your words are tinged with malice, it may become a lie, or like Edgar in King Lear, tell a lie—here is a cliff where there is none—to  arrive at a deeper truth.

We pay Shakespeare no compliment to call him our contemporary, because in his time, the Cartesian split between objectivity and subjectivity was not the fatal flaw that it is today. Shakespeare compressed thought and feeling. His use of language allowed him to do so. He did not escape the complexities. He confronted them. He patrolled the boundaries between the known and the unknown, like a true artist, nothing daunted. But we are not marching with him. In the theatre, as elsewhere, we want to be more in control.

His medium, theatre, was a more sophisticated means of communication than our TV screens, because it relied upon the interaction between the performers and their audiences. The aim was a shared understanding, not the tyranny of fact. The dramatic impetus came from the context in which they performed as well as from the plays, whose meanings might vary, because he allowed for flexible interpretations. Was Shylock a villain or a victim? He was both. Was Othello a target for white prejudice? Yes, but he still murdered Desdemona.

The Tempest was Shakespeare’s most prophetic play. I was taught that it was his farewell to the stage, but there was another more important meaning. Prospero was a magician, a magus like John Dee, the Elizabethan mathematician and astrologer. His power controlled the sea, the waves, the breezes and the minds of his opponents. But he chose not to carry on with a way of life that relied more on conjuring tricks and mass deception than honest governance.

“. . . this rough magic

I here abjure . . . .

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I’ll break my staff,

Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,

And deeper than did ever plummet sound,

I’ll drown my book. . . .”

This does not sound like Shakespeare’s alter-ego giving up the Globe. It is far too grand. It is more like a shaman abandoning witchcraft or like a King or a Pope renouncing his divine authority. Prospero was one who chose to embrace his humanity and to welcome the Age of Reason that lay ahead, but this was still on the far side of the horizon. That particular blood-red sun had not yet risen.

Is there any audience anywhere in the world that needs to be reminded that Shakespeare’s plays are relevant today? Like the Bible, Homer or any great work of literature they resonate. There is no need to update them. But we do need to be reminded that he did not always share our assumptions; and that his understanding of the human dilemma was not inferior to our own but could be quite the opposite. The challenge of producing his plays today is not to pretend that Shakespeare thinks like us, but to encourage us to think like Shakespeare.


There developed a furious pan-European debate about how good Shakespeare really was. The French critics did not like him. His plots rambled and his language was vulgar. Voltaire said that “Shakespeare was a savage with sparks of genius, which shine in a horrible night.” Johnson took Shakespeare to task for neglecting the rules of classical construction, but defended him on the grounds that he was a natural genius, despite the fact that he did not know how to write plays. It was left to the German critic, Gottfried Lessing, to provoke Voltaire and many others by saying in effect, “To hell with rules, Shakespeare is universal!”

John Elsom

*John Elsom is a writer, university teacher and company director. He has held posts with Paramount Pictures and the BBC, broadcast widely and taught in universities in Britain and the U.S., including the Department of Arts Management at City University in London, where he started the first MA in Arts Criticism. He has written for many magazines and journals world-wide, including on a regular basis, and was the President of the International Association of Theatre Critics (IATC) (1985-1992), a UNESCO-affiliated non-governmental organization, and is now its Honorary President. His books include Theatre Outside London, The History of the National Theatre, Erotic Theatre, Post-War British Theatre Criticism, Cold War Theatre, Is Shakespeare Still Our Contemporary?

Copyright © 2016 John Elsom
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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Shakespeare and Modernity