Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Recently Read: The Merry Wives of Windsor

I've just finished reading The Merry Wives of Windsor. After the speculation in my last post I couldn't resist. I was supposed to be reading Fair Em, but I guess she'll have to wait, however fair she may be.

(The cover from a 1630 print of the play,
courtesy of Google Books)

As I surmised in the last post the play was indeed very comic and earthy. Having more in common with some of the apocrypha plays than with the more heady works.

I really enjoyed reading it. It was fun. Once again that British sitcom feel. Just daft, unpretentious comedy. I can imagine how everyday normal people might have enjoyed this at the time. It can be a little bit difficult to envision regular English folk of the period lapping up Hamlet and the like, but stuff like this seems so natural and relatable.

In fact, going down this little avenue has led me to completely rethink my views on Shakespeare full stop, and not just in regard the apocryphal works.

My view now is that he was a popular playwright who wrote accessible works that had mass appeal, but that over time his works became reframed as highbrow.

The general stereotype of Shakespeare we have from his era is that he was a semi-educated "upstart crow". With "small Latin, and less Greek". Popular, but not necessarily held in high regard by his peers. A "natural" genius, lacking classical learning.

I'm now inclined to think this was probably true. That he perhaps was just a semi-rural grammar school boy made good.

Instinctively I now suspect that he rose to prominence penning comedic dramas and jingoistic history plays. Then perfected his craft from there. That his plays were in effect "pop culture" for the time. More aimed towards pleasing audiences than pleasing critics and the well-lettered.

Then, as this popular appeal grew over time and sustained itself it gradually morphed and moved into the realms of "high culture". Which then meant that the scant record of his life was embroidered somewhat. With his body of work pruned of any "lesser works" that didn't sit well with the time-grown myth.

I suspect some of the apocrypha plays are the discarded fruit of this.

It may be hard to imagine this process whereby something "popular" becomes something held in high esteem. However, it is quite a common path for great art. A good example would perhaps be the Beatles.

When the Beatles started out they were "popstars" with mass appeal. Not only that, but they began by imitating the artists that came before them. Elvis, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, etc. (Much like how it's said that Shakespeare was influenced by, or even copied and cribbed from, earlier writers such as Marlowe). The Beatles' art then developed in sophistication over time. Going through many phases. From Love Me Do, to Eleanor Rigby, to solo stuff such as Imagine.

Now had you said to an educated person in the mid-1960s that the Beatles were as important as Mozart or Beethoven they'd have probably laughed. "It's just pop music --for teenage girls. Yes, it's catchy, but nothing more than that".

However, today, fifty years on, the Beatles are lauded as one of the most important cultural touchstones of the 20th century. Their memorabilia sort after. Their songs dissected and obsessed over ..and it's now not teenage boys and girls doing this, but the very people who consider themselves educated. Or at least cultured in some sense.

Time has a way of doing this to art. The truly important stuff tends to stand the test of time. Gathering prestige.

With this lofty elevation though often comes a certain connoisseur's snobbery. With over-analysis, expert opinion and the club of knowledge robbing and clouding the work of its original, simple appeal.

So just as now modern Beatles fans will pour effuse praise on Abbey Road or The White Album. Not attaching themselves quite so much to the catchier and less sophisticated earlier stuff like Please Please Me. So now will Shakespeare fans laud Hamlet and King Lear. Dismissing poppy little works like The Merry Wives.


Finally, as a side note. Whilst searching out information I came across these podcasts concerning the apocrypha plays. They contain so much good information. So much so that I almost feel guilty piggybacking my own little theories off them. They were very useful in helping me form my recent opinions. So I highly recommend them.


Oh, and finally finally. Before I forget. In Merry Wives there's a character in the play called William. A schoolboy by the name of William Page. He only really features in one scene and is inconsequential to the plot. So it's very much a cameo role.

Obviously, having the same first name as the writer himself this could be viewed as a little self-reference. The fact that in the scene the schoolboy is being questioned on his grammar adding to this. When reading it I read it as a nod-and-a-wink joke to the above mentioned criticism of his own poor Latin.

Of course, there are countless theories out there for the appearance of such names and passages, and we all tend to view them through the lens of our own favoured hypothesis. So would I have read it like this had I not already had such a view in mind? It's hard to tell.

Either way I'm glad I've remembered just in time to make a note of it.

No comments:

Post a Comment