London’s theatrical world was less than two decades old when Shakespeare began his career, with the first successful purpose-built theatre (called, simply, “The Theatre”) opening outside the city walls in 1576. The medium was unruly, unstable; closer to the mob delights of bear-baiting than high literature.
It was a time, in fact, not entirely unlike our own: a volatile age of new words, new technologies and new ambitions. Between them, printing and playhouses were set to transform the way a nation delighted and described itself. Relationships between authors and audiences, creators and consumers, were profoundly in flux. The English language itself gained over ten thousand new words during the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras – not to mention some of the greatest literature in history.
Yet none of the young playwrights of the early theatre would have considered themselves “authors”. They were actors, scriptwriters, entrepreneurs, innovators and crowd-pleasers. Shakespeare’s own ambition and prolific rate of production meant much borrowing, adaptation and recombination. His plots and characters were brilliant mash-ups of recent, classical and European sources. His took universal human themes and reimagined them for his time – playing fast and loose with history, probability and conventional creative assumptions. He scarcely took any interest in his own literary legacy. And though he won fame, fortune and royal favour, he continued to be dismissed by some after his death as ill-educated, provincial and insufficiently aristocratic even to have written his own plays.
The lessons and opportunities for today, as the World Shakespeare Festival and its cornucopia of commissions suggests, are immense. His plays themselves are constantly reimagined, reworked and transposed – whether it is Richard III set in World War II or a Maori version of Troilus and Cressida complete with a Haka. New media, however, grant entirely new levels of freedom: not only to share the greatest works and words of all time instantly and universally; but to respond, remix and recreate, whether that means Othello through the Simpsons or Macbeth through the songs of Jonny Cash (you can find other mash-ups here and here). It’s this that the My Shakespeare project promises most enticingly to tap into – from artist Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa’s Nicely Turned tumblr blog, clothing Shakesperian lines and allusions in a 21st-century cultural context, to Will Power’s forthcoming fusion project Hip Hop Shakespeare.
For some people, art shorn of old boundaries and hierarchies is a dangerously cheap commodity: devalued and debased to the level of the mob. This was the argument levelled against actors and playhouses four centuries ago by those who wished only the best possible taste to prevail. And it remains an argument we should gleefully ignore, delving instead into Shakespeare’s work much as he delved into his sources: borrowing, adapting and augmenting; determined both to innovate and to delight; unafraid to be judged by popular taste.
Not every artist will win admirers, let alone become a Shakespeare. Yet perhaps the best lesson to take from the 17th century is a bluntly timeless one: past glories are little use unless you’re prepared to grasp the present moment by the scruff of its neck.