Geoff Spiteri begins this Shakespeare miscellany with the first of many questions. Does Shakespeare matter? He’s asking if the bard’s work is still relevant today and then offers three reasons why it must be. Firstly, because in reading Shakespeare, you’re joining the many millions who enjoy the plays which makes him inclusive. Secondly that he has a lot to teach us about how to deal with the emotional push and tug of our lives and thirdly because the language is so damn entertaining.
All of which are true. But why I think Shakespeare matters, what draws me to the plays, is that they’re unfathomable. No matter how many times you see them, read them, read about them, there are still mysteries that can never be uncovered, fundamentals for which we have no answers forcing us to usher our brains into action, employ our imaginations, fill in the gaps, develop the fantasy. These four hundred year old plays, written by a genius, require us to become co-authors in the great western literary achievement in order to make sense of it.
Spiteri’s work here helps considerably in what is a useful companion volume to Liz Evers’s similar gift book To Be Or Not To Be... But whereas Evers was more interested in the bald facts of the plays, predominantly the words, Spiteri playfully, delving into the pop culture afterlife of the canon, authorship and not to put too finer point on it has a pleasingly unhealthy interest in the seedier aspects of the plays, the sex and death. This is effectively the Channel 5 to Evers’s BBC Four.
Passages about binge drinking and obscene gestures, racism and gore, poisonings and failed suicides weave in-between acres of coverage about the euphemisms Shakespeare employs. Having explained that “nothing” means vagina (or unmentionables as the author has it here) completely changing the implications of Much Ado About Nothing, Spiteri quotes the pre-Mousetrap scene from Hamlet changing the meaning of:
Hamlet: Do you think I mean country matters?Which makes Ophelia somewhat complicit in the flirting no matter how uncomfortably its usually played. No wonder the BBCFC gave the RSC’s Tennant’s starring production a 12 for that passage.
Ophelia: I think nothing, my lord.
Speaking of whom there’s also a welcome and high detailed four page section just detailing the references in Doctor Who including a plot synopsis for The Shakespeare Code. I’m not sure the Hamlet reference is enough to make me want to sit through The Two Doctors again unless I have to. Star Trek gets three similar pages and Babylon 5 a paragraph, which proportionally is probably about right though he fails to note just how tied in The Conscience of the King really is.
Overall though it’s the dark underbelly of the plays which gains the most illumination as we’re reminded that for all the magic of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the reason Shakespeare survives is because he wasn’t afraid to evoke the horrible realism that humanity usually has to offer, hold a mirror up to our faces and in most excellent poetry point at our flaws. If nothing else it’s the first book I’ve seen which baldy asks “Is Cleopatra the best shag in Shakespeare?” and concludes she might well be.
Shakespeare Matters by Geoff Spiteri is published by Portico. £6.99. ISBN: 9-781-9060-3245-6. Review copy supplied.