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Review of 'Shakespeare is Hard, but So is Life', Fintan O'Toole, Granta £6.99

Shakespeare, we're told, is uniquely great--every school student aged 11 to 16 has to study his works. Yet the dominant ideas about Shakespeare--which Irish drama critic Fintan O'Toole confronts in this cheery polemic--make the plays seem boring and incomprehensible.

One problem is that the plays are taken out of their context in 17th century England. Shakespeare's society was dominated by conflict and change. Over a third of the population existed at subsistence level while the court lived in ostentatious luxury. The fixed social order of feudalism was challenged by a new class of merchants and small traders as capitalism began to develop. Trade with India began in 1600, while the first English colony in America had been established in 1585.

Political and religious ideas were also in ferment. King James I wrote a treatise on witches in 1597--one hundred years later Newton was describing the world as an ordered mathematical machine. James believed that kings ruled by divine right--in 1649 his son and successor Charles was beheaded and a republic proclaimed. The four plays which O'Toole discusses--'Hamlet', 'Macbeth', 'King Lear' and 'Othello'--reflect the clash between the feudal and capitalist views of the world. This is quite different from the account you get in GCSE revision aids. These centre on the characterisation of the main role--the 'tragic hero'. The tragic hero has a 'tragic flaw' (Macbeth is ambitious, Othello is jealous...) which inevitably causes them to bring destruction on themselves. The good end happily, the bad unhappily.

Yet this doesn't make sense of the plays. Many people die who can't be accused of bringing about their own destruction (Cordelia, Desdemona, Ophelia...). If 'Othello' is chiefly about Othello as an individual, why has he got fewer lines than Iago? We're told the plays are about characterisation, yet characters like Hamlet and Iago remain enigmatic. The destruction and horror is far from smoothly inevitable: the end of 'Hamlet' is a gory mess, with four corpses on stage.

O'Toole's point is that the plays show individuals and societies caught between the old and new world views. The central figures are torn apart because they don't fully belong to either world. If Macbeth was fully a superstitious medieval man there would be no tragedy--he would believe the witches' prophecy and wait for it to be fulfilled. If he was fully a rational modern man he would disbelieve in witches and dismiss the prophecy as gibberish. Macbeth believes in the prophecy enough to act on it, but he also believes he can control his own destiny.

Caught between the two world views, the central figures lose their identity--Lear goes mad, Hamlet at least pretends madness, Macbeth comes under the sway of the witches and Othello under that of Iago. But this isn't just about individuals. An old order is sunk into corruption and decay. Hamlet's society is poisoned by the murder of the king; an aristocrat hides in the queen's bedroom to eavesdrop on her conversations with her son; Lear's daughters drive him onto a heath in a thunderstorm, where he goes mad. None of the plays end with the established order convincingly restored.

Indeed, social inequality is repeatedly denounced in the plays. Hamlet's 'To be or not to be' speech condemns the rich, who oppress those who 'grunt and sweat under a weary life'. Hamlet stresses that death and decay make all classes equal: 'A man may fish with a worm that hath eat of a king and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.' On the heath, Lear rails against the rich and powerful: 'A dog's obeyed in office... Through tattered clothes great vices do appear; robes and furred gowns hide all.'

This is an excellent introduction to these plays--despite the awful title--particularly for anybody who hated Shakespeare at school.