Cakes and Ale: Greenblatt on Shakespeare

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John Martin: “Macbeth”, oil on canvas, circa 1820. 

A great essay in the New York Review of Books by Stephen Greenblatt on the continuing interpretation and reinterpretation of Shakespeare.

Though Shakespeare’s theatrical artistry gave pleasure, it was not the kind of pleasure that conferred cultural distinction on those who savored it. He was the supreme master of mass entertainment, as accessible to the unlettered groundlings standing in the pit as to the elite ensconced in their cushioned chairs. His plays mingled high and low in a carnivalesque violation of propriety. He was indifferent to the rules and hostile to attempts to patrol the boundaries of artistic taste. If his writing attained heights of exquisite delicacy, it also effortlessly swooped down to bawdy puns and popular ballads.

In Twelfth Night, one of those ballads, sung by a noisy, festive trio of drunkard, blockhead, and professional fool, enrages the censorious steward Malvolio. “Is there no respect of place, persons, nor time in you?” he asks indignantly, to which he gets a vulgar reply—“Sneck up!”—followed by a celebrated challenge: “Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?” Shakespearean cakes and ale may have been beloved by the crowds drawn to the Globe, but they were not fit fare for the champions of piety or decorum. The pleasure they offered was in indefinable ways subversive.

If you’re at all interested in Shakespeare, the person, I highly recommend Greenblatt’s book Will In The WorldIt’s sort of a biography of Shakespeare, but not quite, and it is relentlessly interesting. And it makes you want to read the whole Shakespeare canon immediately, and what better outcome than that?

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