He's good, but not that good

May 19, 2000

It's time Cambridge scrapped its compulsory exam on Shakespeare, argues Jennifer Wallace

I love Shakespeare. He provides me with the magic I need in A Midsummer Night's Dream, where love turns out to be the whimsical but powerful province of fairies. He offers me the possibility of an imaginative, speculative world elsewhere in Hamlet: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio/Than are dreamt of in your philosophy". And even his Lear's "Never, never, never, never, never" paradoxically comforts me in dark days of despair by its confirmation of a shared nihilistic vision.

But these are tough times. It is a poet-eat-poet world out there and no writer is safe or sacred any longer on the syllabus of an English literature degree. The canon is broadening out of all recognition and other writers - those of differing gender, race and class - are rightly clamouring to get in.

So it seems increasingly hard to justify a compulsory special paper in Cambridge devoted to one single author, Shakespeare. Nobody else is awarded the same privilege. The rest of the part one Cambridge English course covers literature in its historical context: there is a paper on the medieval period, a paper on the Renaissance, a paper on the 18th century. Milton has to slum it with the rest of them, and Wordsworth has to share the stage with more minor poets such as William Cowper and Charlotte Smith.

But Shakespeare is abstracted from his historical context and studied in splendid isolation, as if he never had to trouble himself with the material reality of actually living from 1564 until 1616.

So, in the faculty's ongoing review of the undergraduate syllabus I have voted for reintegrating Shakespeare into the Renaissance; for combining the compulsory Shakespeare examination with the examination on the Renaissance. Shakespeare's plays should be studied alongside Christopher Marlowe's and Ben Jonson's and his sonnets alongside those of Phillip Sidney and Edmund Spenser.

This would make room for the study of more modern authors and enable us to double the number of papers covering the 19th and 20th centuries.

After all, A-level students already have to study two Shakespeare plays with no reference to other poets and dramatists writing at the same time. These are often the only pre-20th century texts studied at A level, so in a sense the bardolatry starts then. Cambridge should challenge this special treatment.

"But what about Shakespeare's cultural importance?" critics object. "Surely students need to know their Shakespeare because he has influenced so many writers since?" Well, yes, he has, but so have many other great poets. As much as writers have been steeped in Shakespeare, they have also been well versed in Homer, Virgil, the Bible, Dante and Milton.

Admittedly, John Keats wrote Endymion beneath a portrait of Shakespeare, but Percy Bysshe Shelley sought inspiration for Prometheus Unbound in the ruined Baths of Caracalla in Rome. The cultural influences on poets are multiple, various and often intriguingly bizarre.

And, of course, now the range of literary and cultural influences on English-speaking writers from other countries are even more diverse.

The place for Shakespeare in Cambridge should be in the third year of the student degree when students have completed the historical part of the course and study thematic approaches. Then, in a paper on tragedy, students can study Shakespeare's tragedies alongside Greek tragedy and Chekhov and Japanese Noh plays and ponder similarities and differences among these diverse cultural traditions.

For, if Shakespeare is going to continue to have the power we popularly accord him, he will only do so if we study him comparatively with other literatures and art forms. Only then will we be responding to the best developments in theatre today, where some of the most interesting productions of Shakespeare are a hybrid mixture - an African Julius Caesar or a Japanese Macbeth - and the magic is not just due to the fairies but to the excitement of encountering new experiences and other worlds.

Jennifer Wallace is director of English studies at Cambridge and a fellow of Peterhouse.

* Should Cambridge scrap its traditional examination on Shakespeare to make way for more modern authors?

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