Bard's plays relevant as ever

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 April, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 April, 1993, 12:00am

ALMOST anywhere in the world where English is spoken you can say ''To be or not to be that is the question'' and you will get a response.

Everyone seems to have heard of Shakespeare and Hamlet's famous line. (Incidentally, I believe there are more books written about Hamlet than any other character in fiction).

Why this universal interest and indeed admiration for Shakespeare - an Englishman who lived 400 years ago? Every civilisation has produced artists who respond to the world around them and the society in which they live. Some countries can boast great painters, or poets, or composers and musicians and, of course, no country has a monopoly of artists working inany specific art form.

However, the English have produced great writers - and they may be because the language has acquired a vocabulary and verbal expression from all over the world.

The Celts who originally inhabited England, were habitually raided by the Danes and some of their words came into the language; then the Angles and Saxons from Germany invaded - the Angles giving their name to the country - ''Angle-land'', or England.

The Romans were the next to leave a heritage behind, and the Norman conquest brought more words and phrases to enrich what was already an established society. In later years the Huguenot refugees, and the peoples of the Empire, who all used English in their own way, made their words to offer when it comes to describing anything from a sunset to an ice-cream.

What of Shakespeare? Well, he lived at a particularly fortunate time. Although the vast majority of his fellow countrymen could not read or write, (not even his mother!), yet they were great listeners.

In the Globe playhouse, for which Shakespeare wrote his plays, the spectators would have hung on every word spoken by the actors. And there were no dictionaries: people wrote down what they heard spoken.

Shakespeare, who uses the biggest vocabulary of anyone who has written in English, could make up words, spell them as he liked, use them with a freedom which today we associate more with a painter mixing colours on his palate.

The printing press had been usefully invented in Europe, not long before, so that writers could circulate their works to a growing public - the newly founded Grammar Schools in the larger towns providing the readers.

None of this explains the genius of Shakespeare. He seemed to have the ability to write without conscious effort, without having to revise what he had written, or re-compose a phrase here and there.

Even so, this is not enough to explain his enduring popularity. One of the most significant observations made about him was that ''he wrote not for an age but for all time''.

His plays and characters are firmly rooted in the Elizabethan world he knew so well: the wooded countryside of Warwickshire, the incredible mix which was the London of Elizabeth the First - a city where poverty and petty crime existed side by side with the rich panoply of the court and the bustling life of the merchants and the explorers adventuring into new worlds overseas.

Shakespeare's characters strut in their doublet and hose down streets with half-timbered house, picturesque in their black and white, but as human beings they belong also to the towering blocks of Sha Tin, the alleys and markets of Mongkok and the grill room at the Hilton hotel.

Shakespeare was content to capture in his plays what he saw around him, with a truth and reality that is always completely convincing. But he did not take sides: his villains are always to be pitied as well as blamed - he saw the frustration which motivated a Richard III, the bitterness which provoked an Iago.

Consequently, his plays can be interpreted in a variety of ways, made to conform to any ideology. In eastern Europe under Communism, they were often performed in a way which indirectly challenged the autocratic rule of the Party, the corruption and the unimaginative bureaucracy which prompts Hamlet to contemplate suicide in his famous soliloquy, in order to escape ''the insolence of office and the spurns, that patient merit of the unworthy takes''.

Yet Shakespeare only considered his two narrative poems - ''Venus and Adonis'' and ''The Rape of Lucrece'' - worthy of publication. He never supervised the printing of his plays, and we have to thank two of his fellow actors for the fact that, seven years after his death, they gathered all his plays together and published them in one single volume - the First Folio of 1623.

Was Shakespeare unaware of his great gifts? We shall never know. The bust of him which was placed by his family in the church at Stratford upon Avon, after his death, shows us a middle aged, successful Elizabethan Warwickshire gentleman, with a bald head, and puffy eyes, and a precise and well-trimmed beard.

Is it Shakespeare? Of course not. Nor will you find him in his plays. One has to rejoice that he survived at all in a society living in terror of the plague which could so have easily have been taken from this world; he might have fallen with a dagger inthe back in some dark alley at midnight, the victim of some unknown assailant.

Mr George is Head of Acting (English Production) APA