Radicalism Reclaimed

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Review of 'Revolutionary Portraits: William Shakespeare', Michael Rosen and 'Revolutionary Portraits: William Blake', Judy Cox, Redwords, both £5.99

Shakespeare and Blake have both been appropriated by reactionary forces over the past century. Their most popular works have been depoliticised, rendered safe and prescribed as examples of high literary culture in the government's school curriculum. These two slim volumes reclaim the radicalism of both writers. Judy Cox and Michael Rosen locate Blake and Shakespeare in their specific social, historical and political contexts and offer us rereadings of selected key works which reverberate with fresh significance for us in the 21st century.

At a time when Trevor Phillips, the chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, has attacked multiculturalism and attempted to recruit Shakespeare once again to the cause of creating a phoney national identity, the publication of Michael Rosen's revolutionary portrait is particularly welcome. Rosen debunks the myth of 'merrie England' beloved of the Shakespeare industry. Importantly, he reminds us of the grim economic and social realities of an Elizabethan/Jacobean England racked by wars. He describes a society wrestling with new ideas about human beings' position in the world.

This exciting, sometimes terrifying, sense of enormous social upheaval is reflected in Shakespeare's plays, many of which, Rosen points out, are about what the best way is to run society. Remove the plays from this context and you lose sight of a significant layer of meaning. Concentrate instead on individual character, as traditional Shakespeare scholarship would have us do, and the plays become almost completely depoliticised.

Romeo and Juliet is a good example of how this process works. As everyone knows, this is a romantic love story about a pair of star-crossed lovers whom fate deals a tragic blow. Rosen, however, draws attention instead to Shakespeare's dramatic presentation of a violent Verona dominated by the competing power of old wealth and the emerging bourgeoisie. He shows how the gripping plot is interwoven with social commentary. Contradictory views of marriage reflect the economic (self) interests of characters such as Juliet's father, and are shown to be a rather more credible cause of the lovers' deaths than fate.

Rosen invites his readers to appreciate the dazzling vigour of playscripts which at once reflect the messy reality of human life as well as capturing the dynamic interplay of ideas in a society undergoing immense change.

Judy Cox portrays Blake, the writer and professional engraver, as a passionate campaigner against exploitation and social injustice. As she says, 'Revolt framed Blake's life and his art.' She describes how he was shaped by such diverse influences as revolution and the Bible. His anti-establishment ideas were inherited from some of the dissenting traditions of the English Revolution, but his most mature writings reflect his own personal and political journey from innocence to experience. Blake, living in a London blighted by poverty and starvation, had his imagination fired by the French Revolution.

One of the best known of Blake's poems, 'Tyger', is commonly studied in school. Popularised as some sort of mystical vision, it is sometimes even taught as if the tiger were a literal zoological entity. Cox reprints the poem and, by placing it in its historical and political context, allows its revolutionary energy to re-emerge. She reminds us that French revolutionary leaders were often portrayed as wild beasts or savage tigers by critics at the time and that the tiger in the poem is located in a nightmarish industrial landscape.

Likewise, those who embrace 'Jerusalem' as an unofficial national anthem might be shocked to know that Blake was actually damning England's 'dark, satanic mills', not praising England's glorious feats in the world. Cox takes relish in laying bare the bitter sarcasm of the poem and Blake's blunt conclusion in the final verse that revolutionary action is needed to build a new society. (Tell that to the New Labour leaders who regard it as a safe alternative to the 'Red Flag'!)

It is a shame that the volume does not reproduce more of Blake's engravings and treat them to the same interpretative scrutiny as is paid to the poems. This would give a more complete picture of the way Blake used art as a weapon against injustice. This is my only criticism of a brilliantly drawn portrait of a complex artist and activist.

I strongly recommended both books as accessible introductions to the two writers. Anyone who has seen Michael Rosen perform live will recognise his distinctive voice: informative, political - and always entertaining. Meanwhile Judy Cox's book bursts with historical and biographical detail which at once brings alive Blake's radical impulses and emphasises his humanity.