Following the announcements about 2012’s World Shakespeare Festival, the Bard takes centre stage yet again. Beginning on the great man’s birthday, the festival will coincide with the London Olympics as a celebration of British arts and culture, and their impact around the world. Yet surely there are issues to be raised here: if we are to have a celebration of British arts and culture, then why only Shakespeare? Are there no other British artists who should be recognised? And, if there is any imbalance to be considered, how can it be remedied?
With the likes of Pinter and Stoppard, Dickens and Hardy, the Brontës and the Romantics, and not least those of the Golden Age of British theatre, Middleton, Jonson and Webster, we are endowed with one of the richest dramatic and literary traditions in the world. Pinter has set an unprecedented standard in twentieth and twenty-first century theatre, and Middleton proved himself one of the greatest dramatists of his age. All of the aforementioned have their works printed in classic editions, performed and championed as great plays, and are firmly placed in the canon of arts and literature. They are defined as great artists. But, as the World Shakespeare Festival suggests, they are still not considered worthy of the same recognition as the Bard.
So, we return to that question, why Shakespeare? Why is he held aloft over all other artists? Okay, so there’s the rich language, the plots and the stories, and those memorable characters which he developed and brought to the stage in stunning form. But that’s only part of the answer. On closer acquaintance with his work, both in playtext and on stage, it’s the fine balance he achieves between the individual and the world, the detailed focus and the wider perspective. There is, too, the impact he has had on world theatre, literature, art and so on – perhaps like no other British cultural figure, and only comparable to the King James Bible or Homer and the dramatists of Ancient Greece. Such impact can also be seen in the works of those greats referred to above; those who have, aware or unawares, responded to Shakespeare to become his successors. It is for these reasons that Shakespeare is perceived as being above all else and precisely why it is the World Shakespeare Festival.
Despite his position at the pinnacle of world arts, I still feel uneasy that any celebration of British arts and culture should be so focused on only one artist. Whilst his successors and peers may not have quite achieved his standards and power over literature, they are still some of the finest artists to have lived and surely deserve to be celebrated with their father figure. Why not a World Arts Festival? The World Shakespeare Festival is wonderful in its own way, but for me, and perhaps for others too, British arts are not a one man show.
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