|This Contest Was Won Four Centuries Ago|
|http://www.sina.com.cn 2003/03/06 13:05 《英语学习》|
As the November evenings draw in<注1>,it will become increasingly importantto remember that the BBC's search for the greatest Briton has little to do with real interest in the rival merits of the candidates. If something serious were intended, Anne Robinson<注2> would not be presenting the series, William Ewart Gladstone, George Eliot and John Milton<注3> would have been included in the slate of nominees from which the viewing public made its initial choice, and Diana, Princess of Wales would not be on the final shortlist.
To be fair to the BBC, once somebody had the bright idea of stimulating weak-minded interest by pretending that there was a competition, a sensible programme was impossible. The genuine contest was over before it began.
The title was won four centuries ago and has been retained ever since by the man who makes Britain in general, and England in particular, different from the rest of the world. Whatever our other failures and failings, we remain special and superior because we have William Shakespeare. His champion status cannot be changed by the sort of vote that the BBC organises to determine the sports personality of the year.
Shakespeare would walk away with the title if he were no more than the greatest poet and dramatist the world has ever known. But that is only the beginning of his claim to be England's Englishman. What he wrote defines what we are. England made him but he, in turn, helped to make the England of our imagination. On the day after British troops were evacuated from Dunkirk<注4>, the pupils of my primary school all chanted in unison: Home the four corners of the world in arms and we shall shock them.?
Our notion of national identity distinct from the culture and customs of our continental cousins is enshrined in Shakespeare's histories. Henry V, proposing to Princess Katherine<注6>, typifies our relationship with France 403 years after the scene was written. Affection combines with self-interest to encourage a closer alliance. But the language is a problem.
The poet of England always exhibits an admirable English realism about his native land. He searched for Arcadia<注7> in the Forest of Arden<注8>. And, to guarantee the continued support of his royal patrons, he chronicled the reigns of successive Henrys and Richards in a way that owes more to Tudor<注9> prejudices and propaganda than to objective history. But Shakespeare avoids the mawkish sentimen-tality that characterises so many self-styled patriots.
Shakespeare has become part of our language. Some of the aphorisms are so vivid that they have turnedsintoscliches. But few of us pass a day without using or hearing a dozen phrases which we would find in a book of Shakes-pearean quotations. Years ago I asked Senator Pat Moynihan ?a surviving member of John F. Kennedy's New Frontier<注10>if he had really responded to the news of the president's death with an expression of fear that he would never feel young again. Not quite, he told me. But something like it. His first thought was: Our revels now are ended.?(The Tempest, Act IV, Scene 1, line 148)
No other dramatist has possessed Shakes-peare's ability to analyse the fundamental human emotions. The world's greatest plays about love, ambition, jealousy and grief were all written by him. Each one of them Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello and King Lear teaches perceptive readers something new about themselves. Add to that the political lessons inherent in Coriolanus and Julius Caesar, and it is easy to forget Shakespeare's real purpose. Shakespeare was meant to make us glad. Last summer, I saw Pericles at Stratford<注11>, a play that some critics think not good enough to be the Bard's own work. It was pure delight and I staggered out of the theatre thinking that if this is the worst he ever did, the best must be a series of miracles.
What Shakespeare has to say about love and hate, hope and despair, triumph and failure means as much now as it did when it was written. Enobarbus exaggerated the splendour of Cleopatra's<注12> progress along the river Cydnus because he wanted to be associated with a sensation. Which of us has not done something similar in the hope of impressing our friends? Shakespeare speaks for us all at our worst and best. That is why Ben Jonson<注13> called him Not of an age, but for all time? BBC please note.
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