This powerful rhyme

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I’ve just finished reading Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel, a wonderful post-apocalyptic novel with a strong Shakespearean bent – it starts with a performance of King Lear and much of the plot concerns a travelling orchestra and troupe of players who put on the works of Shakespeare.

The troupe has the motto “Survival is insufficient” and this is the reason they tour the communities around the Great Lakes providing them with music and theatre. According to the novel, audiences prefer Shakespeare to other plays – the explanation given in the novel is that “people want what was best about the world” and since the only character who disagrees in the novel is unable to write more than a couple of sentences, this seems to be the author’s view too.

Now I love my Shakespeare, but I’m not sure I buy this argument. Even now my Bard is leavened with plenty of TV, books, and other stage productions when I can find them. The idea that when it was all the entertainment left to them people would only want the frankly challenging language of the 16th and 17th century is hard to stomach. I suspect the survivors of the apocalypse would also enjoy some Chekhov and Ibsen at the very least, and find it even more probable that, as in Mr Burns, people would reach for the familiar and comforting rather than the stretching and challenging.

Perhaps I do the future of humanity a disservice – perhaps losing almost everything would make people cling to those things which had perceived value and which they could retain. Perhaps it would become easier to relate to Shakespeare’s world as our own more closely resembled it – this premise is set out in Station Eleven, with repeated references to plagues in Shakespeare’s time. Perhaps the value of plays designed to be performed without electric lighting or complicated sets would be increased when such things were unavailable again. It could even be that the ubiquity of Shakespeare makes it more likely to survive. (How many copies of his plays are out there in homes or libraries? Him and Agatha Christie. And probably Harry Potter)

Incidentally, the page title comes from my (current) favourite Shakespeare sonnet – number 55.

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments

Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme,

But you shall shine more bright in these contents

Than unswept stone, besmeared with sluttish time.

When wasteful war shall statues overturn,

And broils root out the work of masonry,

Nor Mars his sword, nor war’s quick fire shall burn:

The living record of your memory.

‘Gainst death, and all-oblivious enmity

Shall you pace forth, your praise shall still find room,

Even in the eyes of all posterity

That wear this world out to the ending doom.

So till the judgment that your self arise,

You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes.

It calls to mind Horace’s final Ode which starts “I have built a monument more lasting than bronze”. Given I can quote it more than two thousand years later, maybe there’s hope for that post-apocalyptic Shakespeare after all…

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3 thoughts on “This powerful rhyme

  1. It’s interesting you’ve posted a review of this book, as another blogger I follow has just done the same and set a challenge for followers to write a (very) short story on the subject of world-end scenarios for the chance to win a copy
    http://bluchickenninja.com/2015/06/24/station-eleven-by-emily-st-john-mandel-giveaway/
    What’s most intersting is her love of it stems from references to Star Trek, where you focussed on the Bard – something for everyone? 🙂

    I think you’re right about the Shakespeare premise. I would suggest if civilisation came to an end tomorrow, the remaining people would more likely wish to see famous Eastenders scenes acted out or bust ups from TOWIE. Call me a horrible old cynic, but the people I work with are much more likely to spend an evening watching soaps or talent shows on TV than at the local theatre wallowing in Will’s beautiful language. I was teased at work the other day because I’ve never seen or taken interest in seeing ‘Dirty Dancing’ – I am thought of as a bit of an oddball. There are plenty of people who still value these things, but not as many as those who want to watch cat videos on You Tube.
    Sorry – rant over.
    Thanks for posting your review – I’ll be sure to look for a copy 🙂

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    • I liked the Star Trek influence too – especially the quote they have chosen – “Survival is insufficient”.
      I have to say I can see myself having a post-apocalyptic hankering for some Dirty Dancing. I don’t think it should have to be an either/or! I don’t believe anyone is going to want to recreate Britain’s Got Talent though…

      Liked by 1 person

      • Probably me being overly cynical! I like the ‘survival is insufficient’ quote – an attempt to maintain some humanity is what would make life worth living. Not sure about the Dirty Dancing, though. Can I request Fiddler on the Roof instead? ‘If I were a rich man…’

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