It’s now left to Shakespeare to remind us of the depths we are capable of

IT’S POSSIBLE we are to be denied a free press thanks to a backroom deal made in Westminster. But when our right to know what is happening right now is being curtailed, we can at least turn to timeless things for comfort. I attended a thrilling production of Romeo and Juliet last night – but not one primarily for anyone reading this paper. It is instead part of a Deutsche Bank-sponsored initiative at Shakespeare’s Globe, designed to introduce a new generation to the bard.

Playing Shakespeare is the Globe’s flagship initiative for London schools, distributing 16,000 free tickets for a production aimed at the young but without sacrificing the richness of the material.

Deutsche Bank is to be commended for supporting a project that escapes both the perils of dumbing down and the dreaded enthusiasm for relevance. It is easy to give money to support every modish fad, but it takes courage to commit to the defence of work of lasting value.

In the work of Shakespeare, as with all the masterworks of our culture, we find not just a relic of the past, but words and characters that live and speak to us now: that remind us, however uncomfortably, of who we are. If we will not be able to read so readily in the press those deeds that men and women wish to keep secret against our interests, we can at least return to these visionary works where our abiding nature is revealed for all time.

The destructive power of love, the petty tribalism that divides those who belong together. Is this the fair Verona conjured by Shakespeare, or the lives of the rich and famous today, from the machinations of Chris Huhne to the uneasy party loyalties imposed by the parliamentary whips?

Romeo and Juliet is a good play to introduce the young to the possibility of unhappy endings. But for a full reflection of the corrosive cynicism of our day, we grown-ups should probably turn to another of Shakespeare’s plays, Troilus and Cressida, where the poisonous traffic of the power hungry and the unprincipled is luridly captured. Before the walls of Troy, the bitter voice of Thersites delights in unmasking the dishonour behind his self-proclaimed betters’ highminded illusions. “Nothing but lechery! all incontinent varlets!”

But Romeo and Juliet, though it may seem the lighter play, with its comic nurse and tender young lovers, remains a tragedy. It dares to show that sometimes the only honest end to the story is a wasteful death. It is an honesty that, in these unreal times, all of us – not just the young – need to hear more often.

In Hamlet’s words about theatre, the aim of the mediums of truth-telling, whether journalism or art, are to show the very age and body of the time its form and pressure. Our greatest danger is the longing to be lied to: to only hear consoling stories or good news. The greatest art, and honest journalism, does not console. It reminds us of the depths and heights of which we are all capable.

First published: City A.M., 22/3/13

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Filed under Freedom, Human nature, Liberal education, Literature, Politics, Publishing

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