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…