Geoff Spiteri begins Shakespeare Matters with a sobering statistic from ‘a recent survey [presumably 2007, the year before the book’s publication] commissioned for the National Year of Reading’ (Spiteri 5). The runner-up in the most loathed reads category for teenagers was Shakespeare’s plays. Spiteri then adds that for ‘most of us’ reading Shakespeare constituted boring lessons at school (5). Yet, Shakespeare Matters sets out to prove that the bard is still relevant because he is an international phenomena, writes about universal human truths and is creative with language. Spiteri celebrates a conservative Shakespeare that the Marxist literary critic Alan Sinfield challenged way back in 1985.
Sinfield’s main concern is that Shakespeare’s plays are used in secondary education to maintain the bourgeois ideology that privileges the universal and the individual, whilst suppressing the historical and the social. He argues that the plays are wrongly interpreted as revealing ‘universal “human” values and qualities’ that are treated as ‘self-contained and coherent entities’ in which meanings are fixed – Othello will always be a jealous murderer and Caliban monstrous (Sinfield 138). It is a right wing view exemplified by Laurence Olivier’s film version of Henry V (1944) made purposefully patriotic in anticipation of Britain winning the Second World War. The film begins with the following message:
To the commandoes and airborne troops of Great Britain, the spirit of whose ancestors it has been humbly attempted to recapture in some ensuing scenes, this film is dedicated.
The dedication prepares the viewer for Olivier’s rousing St. Crispian speech that includes the famous phrase ‘we band of brothers’ (IV.iii, line 60) and the French defeat at the Battle of Agincourt.
Spiteri has no Nationalist Shakespeare in mind as he notes that the plays have been translated into seventy different languages including Klingon. He then shows how Shakespeare has crept into our lives through TV programs such as South Park, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Doctor Who, not to mention numerous films. There is a fascinating discussion on Hamlet’s words Philip K. Dick used in his book title Time Out of Joint (1959) that inspired the Jim Carrey film The Truman Show (1998). Both Dick’s novel and Carrey’s movie loosely follow the plot of Hamlet in which a protagonist rights a false utopia.
In fact, Shakespeare Matters is full of fascinating tidbits and Shakespearean quotes that encourages readers to try the plays for themselves. Though, sadly, such a readership may be satisfied with what Spiteri offers. If not, there’s always Wikipedia.
Shakespeare, William. Henry V. 1600. Ed. T.W. Craik. London: Arden Shakespeare, 1995.
Sinfield, Alan. ‘Give an account of Shakespeare and Education, showing why you think they are effective and what you have appreciated about them. Support your comments with precise references.’ Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism. Eds. Jonathan Dollimore & Alan Sinfield. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985.
Spiteri, Geoff. Shakespeare Matters: A Little Knowledge Is a Dangerous Thing. London: Portico Books, 2008.