Richard Wilson – The Good Fight: Shakespeare Today


Edinburgh Book Festival

Garden Theatre, Charlotte Square


25 August ONLY


Oh my!  It was good to know I wasn’t the only audience member to have got the Richard Wilsons confused – this was not Victor Meldrew, but an academic who certainly knew his stuff but expected that we knew it too – and alas, I didn’t…


The first, quite lengthy, part of his talk was about all his previous books, ostensibly to show how he arrived at the current one which he was there to promote, but maybe also  suggesting that we should buy them too.  We then turned to his latest book Worldly Shakespeare: the Theatre of our Goodwill and were introduced to various chapters and the “new ideas and insights” Stuart Kenny promised us in his introduction.  Richard Wilson’s stated aim is to put Shakespeare into his historical context and bring him into contemporary society, pointing out his relevance to today – I don’t know that he succeeded with me.


Considering Hamlet:  Wilson sees the Elizabethan Jesuits as the terrorists of their day, and pointed out that terrorists can be seen as good or bad in people’s minds.  He suggested that ‘to be or not to be’ was less about suicide, self-destruction, as about mutual suicide, suicide bombing – “self-slaughter as revenge”.  Hamlet stands “on the battlements of Europe” – (is he looking for/ expecting a messiah? A monster?) and sees himself as a messianic scourge.


Twelfth Night: he connected the Shah of Persia with Queen Elizabeth as rulers of the only two states having a very close link between church and state.  Elizabeth sent envoys to the Shah: quite what that had to do with the play was lost on me.  Troilus & Cressida, which I don’t know well: he said there was an attempt in the 1590s to re-establish the Olympic idea of peace, general amnesty, and universal brotherhood by staging the Cotswold Games, which Shakespeare would have known well, and suggested that many people in England were looking to the future James VI to come south and bring peace and harmony, bringing Catholic and Protestant together- agonism rather than antagonism [the former, Wikipedia informs me, is a political theory suggesting the possibility of being brought together through difference].


Frankly, most of the talk was either above my head or poorly expressed: it was potentially interesting, while not exactly being intelligible.  I’m not sure at whom it was aimed, but the interface between ordinary audience and academic was not crossed or integrated in my case anywhere near as successfully as Emma Smith did in her recent talk. There was much to think about and maybe research later, not least Wilson’s contention that William Shakespeare didn’t write everything that’s in his plays today, and that many of them were re-written after his death to take account of political developments and changes in attitude – I might well get some of Wilson’s books from the library to see whether he makes any more sense on the page than he did in person, but from the passages he read out, I have my doubts…


I hope other audience members fared better than I did!


Mary Woodward