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Shakespeare and the Common Man

Graham Wilson

Shakespeare as reluctant anarchist?

Graham Wilson, for many years head of English at the King’s School in Macclesfield and English Literature moderator for the OCR examining board, begins his investigation of half a dozen Shakespearean plays by recalling his own introduction to the bard:

It must have been at the time when my interest in Arthur Ransome had begun to wane and I had yet to discover Leslie Charteris. It was then that I remember thinking that I should read Shakespeare. I wasn’t sure what Shakespeare was, but I knew it was important because when my mother mentioned his name, she used that tone of voice that she normally reserved for the King.

Later, when he came to teach the plays, he was struck how the very name could turn off even the brightest students. Realising that they, as he had done, instinctively put Shakespeare on the side of the Establishment, he set about convincing them that Will was a rebel, if a covert one:

In a world of the rack and the ‘servant fee’d’ it was clearly dangerous to say what you feel and equally politically advantageous to say what was expected. If the playwright wants to tell the truth as he sees it, this restriction places him in a difficult position. Shakespeare overcame the dilemma by appearing to say what he ought but, by applying a variety of strategies, allowing the audience to see what he felt and meant. The voices he employs for this purpose are, more often than not, ill-considered characters — rogues, fools, clowns, powerless women and, in one case at least, a boy. It is through them that he raises equivocation to a high art.

In this entertaining, often provocative series of essays, Wilson explores the way in which Shakespeare managed these oblique attacks on the abusers of power and privilege. He looks at, inter alia:

The development of the Fool from jig-maker to judge; women as the disregarded voice of reason; Macbeth — what the Porter saw; Hamlet — a fractured fool; King Lear — a study in anarchy; Othello a comedy lost; Caliban, kings and Joseph Conrad; A Winter’s Tale and other fictions.

Cover illustration by Robin Hidden.

170x120mm, viii + 152 pp
list price
978 1 902173 115