A Low-Down Dirty Schama: Simon Schama’s Shakespeare, Part 1

I know this is supposed to be the Year of Shakespeare but for God’s sake does that mean that every established BBC presenter gets a crack at him, however little they actually know? After the two parts of Simon Schama’s Shakespeare (or SSS) I can only wonder who’s next, Niall Ferguson?

Don’t get me wrong, Schama has done at least one thing I admire. I still get a warm feeling when I remember how he tore into John Bolton during the BBC’s coverage of the 2008 United States presidential election. I’m not the only one: it’s mentioned in his Wikipedia entry. In truth, though, John Bolton is a thug, and somebody should have taken down the white-mustached bully boy years before; he should never have been allowed near the BBC. And what I’ve seen of Schama’s popular output has not impressed me; an episode or two of his History of Britain and Power of Art. Neither struck me as having needed to be made; still less does SSS.

According to BBC Two, “Simon Schama argues that it is impossible to understand how Shakespeare came to belong ‘to all time’ without understanding just how much he was of his time.” Fair enough, and Schama’s history is not terribly objectionable (he is, after all, a historian). But he is not a Shakespeare scholar and has no other special source of insight into the plays; this series exists because of Simon Schama, not because of Shakespeare.

The first installment in the series, “This England,” argues that Shakespeare gave the English their idea of England by showing them “England unedited,” “the cream and the scum.” (I was interested by the casual assumption that we would all agree which was which.) That’s the Protestant cream and the Protestant scum, mind you. After the Reformation, Protestant England “needed to tell its own story” to oppose itself to rebel Catholics “abroad—and at home.” Shakespeare hasn’t even started creating “England” and already it excludes a sizeable portion of the English people, including his mother’s side of the family. (In this part of the documentary Schama is cribbing his history from Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World, not the soberest of sources. However, Schama cannot mention the idea, which Greenblatt considers at length, that Shakespeare was Catholic; that would have made it hard for him to forge the voice of the Protestant English people.)

That points to the big problem with this first hour of the series. Schama seems to assume there is something we can all agree on as the English national self-image, but he never actually says what it is. He gestures toward various snippets, such as the idea of Deep England, Churchill vowing to fight the Nazis on the beaches, and the lowlifes and prostitutes of the Boar’s Head Tavern, but he never gets them to jell. When he says something like “What you feel at Wembley, they felt at the Globe” I can only respond that I have no idea why the true comparison isn’t “What you feel at Wembley, they felt at the bear-baiting pits.” I can well imagine that the Globe’s audience had a communal experience, but I need to be persuaded that it was an experience of Englishness.

The concept of Shakespeare as the national voice of England is a cliché by 2012; but the idea that he consciously tried to forge a national identity, to the extent it makes sense, can in fact find some support in the plays. There’s John of Gaunt’s great “This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England” speech in Richard II. And above all there’s Henry V, as conscious an exercise in national-myth building as you could ask for. But Schama doesn’t mention either play in this context. Instead, he argues that the plays that forged the English national consciousness are the Henry VI trilogy and Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2.

A focus on Henry VI might seem perverse. These three plays are among Shakespeare’s most neglected, and in the case of Part 1 at least, there’s a scholarly consensus that most of it isn’t Shakespeare’s. It is still, according to Schama, “the record of a genius in the making,” which is a far cry from being constitutive of the British national character, but never mind. The argument that Part 1 is significant (apart from Schama’s way-over-the-top characterization of it as “Kill Bill in tights”–I kid you not) is that it features the English national hero John Talbot, of whom the “Nancy boy” French are terrified even when he’s their prisoner. Schama conveniently omits the presence of Joan of Arc in this play and her triumph over Talbot. Some English national hero; he can’t even beat a girl!

Part 2 is significant for the only reason anybody remembers the trilogy, the suggestion by a peasant rebel “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” Like most people, Schama misattributes the line to the rebel leader, Jack Cade. He also oversimplifies Cade’s complex characterization (see Marjorie Garber’s Shakespeare After All for a more nuanced unpacking) by stating that Shakespeare, “the first poet of class warfare,” nonetheless prevented identification with Cade, covering his own Bardic behind, by making him a megalomaniac.

Schama starts from the familiar observation that Shakespeare presents all elements of society, the high and the low, and certainly Part 2 does this. But it doesn’t follow that the plays, especially Henry VI, created an English (really Protestant) national self-image that also contains all elements of society. One could as well conclude from Part 2 that England contains rabble, and when they get ideas beyond their station they will be smashed. (Come to think of it, I’ve seen considerably more inaccurate accounts of the English character.)

Bringing in Henry IV doesn’t help. Just as Schama followed Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World for his account of Shakespeare’s family and of Stratford, so her he follows the Great Gasbag of New Haven, Harold Bloom. And that means Falstaff, Falstaff, and more Falstaff. (There’s always more Falstaff.) We get the usual encomia to Falstaff as an unstoppable life force and all the usual speeches. Roger Allam’s performance as Falstaff is the best thing in the whole series, despite his increasingly disturbing resemblance to Christopher Hitchens. And we get undefended assertions that Falstaff is part of that English national character Shakespeare molded (“In Falstaff we find all the characteristics we associate with the English: wit, irony, irreverence”; “You can almost taste the flavor and savor of England in Falstaff’s language”; and most egregiously, “Shakespeare answered the question ‘What is England?’ with one word.”).

Where Falstaff goes, of course the rest of the dirty, drunken, dishonest, dangerous, but full of life crew of the Boar’s Head, including Mistress Quickly and Doll Tearsheet, follow. So again, Shakespeare depicts the common people; no mean accomplishment, but not as constitutive of the English national character.

I have a huge problem (is there any other kind where Falstaff is concerned?), which I’ll expound at length in that misty future when this blog gets to Henry IV, with all this Falstaff hagiography. It’s patent that Shakespeare is quite deliberately trying to undercut any attempt to take Falstaff to be some sort of ludic, or some other ic, symbol of England as a whole; Falstaff is always doing bad things, sometimes things that cost other people’s lives, out of naked self-interest. Would you really want to hang out with him? Is he really somebody you could have a bottle of sack with? Of course not. Yes, Falstaff is larger than life, yes, he is some kind of life force, yes, banish him and you banish all the world. He is also a monster of ego and appetite, the kind of guy who will impress cripples into the army to be sent to their deaths at the front, and all for another bottle of sack. The sanitized Bloomian Falstaff who embodies Merrie or Deep England is a boring cliché; the multidimensional monster Shakespeare actually created is both a prodigy and a projection of people we all have known. (In the same way, there’s the Prince Hal who became a different symbol of Deep England and the prisoner-slaughtering war criminal, Henry V.) As always, what’s interesting to and about Shakespeare is the two sides of the character..

Schama contrasts Falstaff not with Prince Hal but with that other father, Hal’s real one, Henry IV.  Of course, where Falstaff is a life affirmer, Henry IV is a life denier. I’m not going to make anything of this except to note a pop culture comparison even more extraordinary than “Kill Bill in tights”; Schama says, and I stopped the playback to make absolutely sure I heard him correctly, that Henry IV is “trapped in a Death Star where everyone moans and plots in the steel casing of their dark armor.” Yes, according to Schama England is the Death Star. How the characters line up is not at all clear, but if Henry IV is Darth Vader brooding in his dark armor, Prince Hal has to be Luke Skywalker, who destroys England, I mean the Death Star . . . Basta!

There’s nothing wrong with pop culture analogies to Shakespeare. I make them all the time myself. But they have to make sense. When they just make you scratch your head rather than illuminate both halves of the comparison, they need to be edited out.

I’ll close out this first post with a comment on the production of the episode. There’s a bog standard BBC Culture Special template that especially applies to any show about Shakespeare, as recognizable and formulaic as a Ken Burns documentary: Long shot of the presenter in London or the countryside, voice over b roll of city or country scenes, presenter interviews specialist, monologue snippet from the plays. Mix and match, and you’ve got yourself a script. (James Shapiro’s far superior The King and the Playwright follows exactly the same format; the principal difference is that Shapiro is a real scholar who interviews other real scholars, so that his documentary is actually educational.) Schama has an awful lot of b roll, shot after shot after shot of London crowds not particularly relevant to anything, even to his contention that Shakespeare depicts the common person. Just people walking the streets of London who must have presented the BBC with serious clearance problems given that so many are shot in identifiable lingering close-up. There’s a cryptic, extended, bloody boxing scene that I think is supposed to illustrate Schama’s claim that Henry VI Part 1 is all battle scenes. I’ll grant that there’s one witty moment; Hal’s rejection of Falstaff is illustrated by a shot of a spitted rotating pig roasting in the window of a takeaway.

Schama tapped the Royal Shakespeare Company for his “specialists”: the playwright David Edgar and the company director Michael Boyd. He also interviews a number of actors—which, as Holger Schott Syme has noted in the context of another BBC Shakespeare special, is almost never a good idea (Syme singles out Simon Russell Beale, who is equally vapid here). These commentators contribute absolutely no insights beyond the superficial. It is almost beside the point to note that there are only two women in the entire series: the actresses Harriet Walter and Judi Dench. It may be more to the point that Schama speaks to no Shakespeare scholars or historians, male or female—anybody who could contribute genuine insight, or more to the point show that Schama has none.

So much for Schama’s account of the Elizabethan Shakespeare, who forged the uncreated conscience of his race in the smithy of his pen. Next up is the Jacobean Shakespeare, who Schama presents, despite his protestations to the contrary, as a courtier hardly distinguishable from—and yes, this is a come-on—the Duke of Oxford.

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