Radical Shakespeare: Why do we get him so wrong?

By Pauline F Kiernan

A timely study which restores the revolutionary message of Shakespeare's art.

History | Non fiction
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It’s time to re-think our attitude to Shakespeare.

Do the war leaders and reporters who carelessly reference Henry V to whip up patriotic fervour or justify military expansionism even read the play?

Almost always charged with anti-semitism, what happens when we look at Shakespeare’s original audience and how they would have responded to Shylock?

Who uses racist language in Othello? Does this make it a racist play?

Do his portrayals of women make him a misogynist?

Who are the baddies in Shakespeare's plays? How does the audience’s response to them, moment by moment, turn our moral compass this way and that?

Racist, anti-semitic, misogynistic, Tudor propagandist, nationalistic warmonger. It’s hard to find a writer who has attracted such a diverse array of abusive terms. Applying lazy and simplistic labels to Shakespeare’s plays is both intellectually sloppy and theatrically naive. We may not be able to recover the precise mind-set of his audience, but we can do him the courtesy of not wilfully misrepresenting what he wanted his dramas to do.

Radical Shakespeare: Why do we get him so wrong? is a powerfully argued exploration of the bard’s work. Based on decades of close study and research, Pauline F. Kiernan’s book shows that far from the equivocating conservative of popular myth, Shakespeare was a true progressive. But it is only by placing his work in its contemporary context that we can fully appreciate his commitment to reform and the subversive power of the theatre. 

Image credits: Design by Mecob. Images © Shutterstock.

Book designs, cover and other images are for illustrative purposes and may differ from final design.

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  • Pauline is a Shakespeare scholar, literary critic, awarded-winning playwright and screenwriter. She’s held lectureships and fellowships at the Universities of Oxford and Reading, is the author of the acclaimed Shakespeare’s Theory of Drama, Staging Shakespeare at the New Globe and Screenwriting They Can’t Resist.
                         
    She was appointed Leverhulme Research Fellow at Shakespeare’s Globe in its first six years, gives talks on Shakespeare around the world, and has written two stage plays about Shakespeare and the politics of his time: SEDITION is about the battle for control of the theatre between Shakespeare and Elizabeth I. Her latest play is HOMELESS: STATE OF THE NATION. 1602. 2022, which looks at the startlingly disturbing parallels between Shakespeare’s world and our world today.


    Her best-selling Filthy Shakespeare, an Observer Book of the Year, has been republished in an e-book edition.

  • Imagine. A Western Power with no allies in Europe, under constant threat of war with the world’s greatest Superpower. A country bedevilled by a disastrous economic policy, mounting debt, nightmare inflation, and a monopolies system so unfair, it amounts to bureaucratic theft. A people subsisting at near starvation level, facing unprecedented mass unemployment, and devastating crop failures year after year. Widespread outbreaks of rioting are the only way they can make their voices heard.

    Imagine a Head of State under constant threat of assassination, whose personal staff sell secrets to ambassadors and spies from foreign enemy states to the highest bidder. Dissidents of the state-enforced religion, backed by the world’s most powerful nation, are plotting the overthrow of the government. Even the Pope is urging your closet Catholics to murder you and sending troops to Ireland to invade your land.

    whose personal staff sell secrets to ambassadors and spies from foreign enemy states to the highest bidder. Dissidents of the state-enforced religion, backed by the world’s most powerful nation, are plotting the overthrow of the government. Even the Pope is urging your closet Catholics to murder you and sending troops to Ireland to invade your land.

    The number of homeless is increasing every day. They drift from town to town, sleeping rough, begging. The rich are getting richer on the back of an ever-increasing dependence on credit. Usury, outlawed for centuries as being against God’s law, becoming so rife, you’ve had to bring in a law to legalise it. You’re having to depend on money-lenders yourself.

    What would you do if you had the government of such a state?

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