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This article is taken from PN Review 156, Volume 30 Number 4, March - April 2004.

For Shakespeare the European David Gervais

`It was always the trick of our English nation, if they have a good thing, to make it to common.' (Henry IV)

`... acquainting ourselves with the best that has been known and said in the world, and thus with the history of the human spirit.' (Matthew Arnold)


Watching as much as I could stand of the recent television series on Shakespeare the man, it struck me that though we promote his plays as universal we think of him as quintessentially `English'. This does not prevent us from seeing him as `the greatest writer in the world'. His `Englishness' is a given but it never obliges us to ask what `world' it is that he belongs to. It is enough that his prestige leaves us with a warm glow inside and our assumptions and prejudices intact. The most important value-judgement we ever make thus consorts with a blind chauvinism that abdicates true judgement at one stroke. Only a Frenchman like Voltaire would ever contest his status. For us, the plays simply confirm our sense of national self-importance. Shakespeare is a figure on a pedestal, `out-topping knowledge', like the statue of him at Stratford on Avon: we know him so well we need to make no effort to understand him. Our love for him has little commerce with criticism. The new Arden introductions, for instance, may be full of hushed respect but they usually avoid any critical analysis of his poetry. ...

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