William Shakespeare and Robert McCrum

This way, madness lies

Using the name Shakespeare in your book title shouldn’t do anything for sales

This article is taken from the October issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

It sometimes feels as if Shakespeare has the power to induce insanity in just about every writer going. Consider Ted Hughes and his ridiculous (and ridiculously shambolic) effort to salvage what remained of his equilibrium when he decided that he had discovered the secret of Shakespeare’s imaginative and aesthetic force — had registered the texture of his heart — by virtue of identifying the central “tragic equation” that gave a full measure of his artistic temperament.

The result was a work — Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being — in which the greatest writer in the English language (do we here exclude the possibility of George Eliot? of James Joyce?) could be understood by means of a formula: namely, that in Shakespeare we encounter an imagination shaped by an inability to unify the then competing forces of Puritanism and Catholicism while functioning (or malfunctioning) in obeisance to the lingering influence of a female Pagan deity, devastating in the tenacity of her erotic force, who might offer a key to unlocking (always a dangerous word, so far as Shakespeare is concerned) the lineaments of his mind and ours.

Shakespearean: On Life and Language in Times of Disruption, By Robert McCrum
Picador, £14.99

And consider the example of Harold Bloom, who wrote in his Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human about the ways in which the endeavours of his subject summoned into being not only a more fecund and richly textured depiction of individual life than the world had registered in the years preceding (say) 1590, but a version of humanity to which the world had previously been a stranger.

Madness on both counts. But a glance at the commercial Shakespeare multinational shows that, as a temperamental and literary-critical preponderance, his deforming influence as a subject for expository prose (hardly his fault) has failed to wane. So much so that it sometimes feels as if, in deference to Ben Jonson, we should abandon all commentary and simply recognise our central playwright’s genius as a phenomenon to be appreciated “on this side idolatry”.

In his new study of the abiding resonance of Shakespeare’s language and preoccupations as they have been registered in the early twenty-first century, Robert McCrum (former literary editor of the Observer) does not recognise this boundary. But he does, in an act of almost pathological indulgence of his assumed readers’ inattention and of his own laziness, make a preposterous series of overblown and frugally substantiated claims for a writer he views as lying at the heart of modern life.

The book is an almost impressively self-indulgent mess. Full of false premises, non-questions, gnomic ruminations, it sets out to tell us why, following Jan Kott, Shakespeare “continues to speak to us, from day to day, almost as our contemporary”. What McCrum says he wants to address is the mysterious way in which — in an age that has endured the attacks on America of September 11, 2001; the war in Iraq; the consequent atrocities of Abu Ghraib; the credit crunch of 2007-2008; the exit of Obama and the rise of Trump; the global disruption of Covid-19 — Shakespeare has provided the “one particular voice . . . that seemed to understand our predicament, a voice of vision and clarity that offered a secure narrative line through the constancy of its focus on states of risk”.

It demonstrates how bad a writer it is possible to be while making a case for the enduring force of another’s prowess

Leaving to one side the obvious objection that the writers who were most on people’s minds following September 11 were Auden (with his “affirming flame”) and Yeats (with his lacking of conviction and “passionate intensity”), this is nonsense. And indecorous nonsense. Shakespeare has not been the figure to sustain us through these occurrences, nor should he be. Nor, one suspects, does McCrum really believe he is.

He does believe, and know, that dropping the name Shakespeare into the title of a book — one that amounts to little more than a rambling and arhythmic meditation on the present age — is likely to do something for your sales. It should not. And I hope it will not. For even if we take McCrum at his word and agree that Shakespeare has proved a uniquely prescient and sensitive source with which to take the measure of our days, his book does nothing to support this claim.

What it does do is demonstrate, with almost bewildering intensity, how bad a writer it is possible to be while making a case for the enduring force of another artist’s relevance and prowess.

Like Margaret in EM Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread, McCrum has a habit of delivering a fatuity as if it were an epigram. And his prose is an interminable nightmare of clichés and infelicities.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5

Critic magazine cover