What’s so bad?

We humans love a good bit of misery. We note when bad luck befalls us, chronicle our ailments and often consider ourselves to be having a harder-than-average time of it all. The news and media constantly bombard us with stories of injustice, crime, health scares and why we are basically the worst country imaginable in every conceivable respect, and one only needs to spend a few minutes on any internet forum or discussion centre to find a thousand new and innovative reasons as to why you, and everything you stand for, is totally horrible and stupid and deserves to die. And/or that any faith in humanity you have is entirely misplaced.

However, optimists across the globe have pointed out that if the human race was actually as evil, despicable or otherwise useless a barrel of skunks as it often appears, we probably wouldn’t actually be around; or, at the very least, there certainly is nice and good stuff in this world that we humans are responsible for. So why are we so fixated on the bad? Why our attraction to misfortune? Are we all secretly schadenfreude junkies?

Part of the reason is of course traceable back to the simple fact that we humans are decidedly imperfect creatures, and that there is an awful lot of bad stuff in this world; these scare stories have to come from somewhere, after all. Take the two things that I feel most strongly about; climate change and slavery. In the two centuries since the industrial revolution, we have inflicted some catastrophic damage on our planet in the frankly rather shallow pursuit of profit and material wealth that always seem so far away; not only has this left vast scars of human neglect on many parts of our earth, but the constant pumping of pollutants into our atmosphere has sorely depleted our precious, irredeemable natural resources and is currently in the process of royally screwing with our global climate; it may be centuries before the turmoil calms down, and that’s assuming we ever manage to get our act together at all. On the other front, there are currently more slaves in existence today than at any other point in history (27 million, or roughly the combined population of Australia and New Zealand), a horrifying tribute to the sheer ruthlessness and disrespect of their fellow man of some people. The going rate of a slave today is 500 times less than it was in the days before William Wilberforce ended the Atlantic slave trade, at just $90, and this website allows you to calculate approximately how many slaves worldwide work to maintain your lifestyle. I got 40. I felt kinda sick.

However, as previously said there is also a fairly large quantity of awesome stuff in this world, so why doesn’t this seem to go as well-documented and studied as what’s going wrong. We never hear, for example, that X government department was really efficiently run this year, or that our road system is, on average, one of the best and safest in the world; it’s only ever the horror stories that get out.

Maybe it’s that we actively take pleasure in such pain; that we really do crave schadenfreude, or at the very least that negative feeling has a large emotional connotation. We use such emotion constantly in other situations after all; many films exploit or explore the world of the dark and horrifying in order to get under our skin and elicit a powerful emotional response, and music is often ‘designed’ to do the same thing. The emotions of hatred, of horror,  of loss, even fear, all elicit some primal response within us, and can create reciprocating emotions of catharsis, the sense of realisation and acceptance combined with a sense of purification of the soul. This emotion was the most sought-after feature of classical Greek tragedy, and required great influxes of negative emotion for it to work (hence why most theatre displays incorporated comedic satyrs to break the sheer monotony of depression); maybe we seek this sense of destructive satisfaction in our everyday lives too, revelling in the horror of the world because it makes us, in an almost perverse way, feel better about the world. And hey; I like a good mope now and again as much as the next man.

But to me, this isn’t the real reason, if only because it overlooks the most simple explanation; that bad stuff is interesting because it stands out. Humans are, in a surprising number of ways, like magpies, and we always get drawn to everything outside the norm. If it’s new, it’s unusual, so we find it intriguing and want to hear about it. Nowadays, we live a very sheltered existence in which an awful lot of stuff goes right for us, and the majority of experiences of life and other people fall into the decidedly ‘meh, OK’ category. Rarely are you ecstatic about the friendliness of the staff in your local newsagents, as most such people tend to be not much more than a means to the end; they are efficient and not horrible about allowing you to purchase something, as it should be. This is so commonplace, purely by virtue of being good business practice, that this is considered the norm, and it’s not as if there’s much they can do to elevate the experience and make it particularly enjoyable for you- but it’s far easier for them to be surly and unhelpful, making you note not to visit that shop again. This applies in countless other ways of life; the strictness of our national driving test means that the majority of people on any given road are going to behave in a predictable, safe fashion, meaning the guy who almost kills you pulling out onto the motorway sticks in your mind as an example of how standards are falling everywhere and the roads are hideously unsafe.

To me, the real proof of this theory is that we are capable of focusing on the good things in life too; when they too are somewhat dramatic and unusual. During last summer’s Olympics, an event that is unlikely to occur in Britain again in my lifetime, the news recorded various athletes’ medal success and the general awesomeness of the event every evening and everyone seemed positively taken aback by how great the event was and how much everyone had got behind it; it was genuinely touching to see people enjoying themselves so much. But in our current society, always striving to improve itself, finding examples of things hitting well below par is far easier than finding stuff acting above and beyond the call of awesome.

Although admittedly being happy the whole time would be kinda tiring. And impractical

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Why do we call a writer a bard, anyway?

In Britain at the moment, there are an awful lot of pessimists. Nothing unusual about this, as it’s hardly atypical human nature and my country has never been noted for its sunny, uplifting outlook on life as a rule anyway. Their pessimism is typically of the sort adopted by people who consider themselves too intelligent (read arrogant) to believe in optimism and nice things anyway, and nowadays tends to focus around Britain’s place in the world. “We have nothing world-class” they tend to say, or “The Olympics are going to be totally rubbish” if they wish to be topical.

However, whilst I could dedicate an entire post to the ramblings of these people, I would probably have to violate my ‘no Views’ clause by the end of it, so will instead focus on one apparent inconsistency in their argument. You see, the kind of people who say this sort of thing also tend to be the kind of people who really, really like the work of William Shakespeare.

There is no denying that the immortal Bard (as he is inexplicably known) is a true giant of literature. He is the only writer of any form to be compulsory reading on the national curriculum and is known of by just about everyone in the world, or at least the English-speaking part. He introduced between 150 and 1500 new words to the English language (depending on who you believe and how stringent you are in your criteria) as well as countless phrases ranging from ‘bug-eyed monster’ (Othello) to ‘a sorry sight’ (Macbeth), wrote nearly 40 plays, innumerable sonnets and poems, and revolutionised theatre of his time. As such he is idolised above all other literary figures, Zeus in the pantheon of the Gods of the written word, even in our modern age. All of which is doubly surprising when you consider how much of what he wrote was… well… crap.

I mean think about it- Romeo and Juliet is about a romance that ends with both lovers committing suicide over someone they’ve only known for three days, whilst Twelfth Night is nothing more than a romcom (in fact the film ‘She’s the Man’ turned it into a modern one), and not a great one at that. Julius Caesar is considered even by fans to be the most boring way to spend a few hours in known human history, the character of Othello is the dopiest human in history and A Midsummer Night’s Dream is about some fairies falling in love with a guy who turns into a donkey. That was considered, by Elizabethans, the very height of comedic expression.

So then, why is he so idolised? The answer is, in fact, remarkably simple: Shakespeare did stuff that was new. During the 16th century theatre hadn’t really evolved from its Greek origins, and as such every play was basically the same. Every tragedy had the exact same formulaic plot line of tragic flaw-catharsis-death, which, whilst a good structure used to great effect by Arthur Miller and the guy who wrote the plot for the first God of War game, does tend to lose interest after 2000 years of ceaseless repetition. Comedies & satyrs had a bit more variety, but were essentially a mixture of stereotypes and pantomime that might have been entertaining had they not been mostly based on tired old stories, philosophy and mythology and been so unfunny that they required a chorus (who were basically a staged audience meant to show how the audience how to react). In any case there was hardly any call for these comedies anyway- they were considered the poorer cousins to the more noble and proper tragedy, amusing sideshows to distract attention from the monotony of the main dish. And then, of course, there were the irreversibly fixed tropes and rules that had to be obeyed- characters were invariably all noble and kingly (in fact it wasn’t until the 1920’s that the idea of a classical tragedy of the common man was entertained at all) and spoke with rigid rhythm, making the whole experience more poetic than imitative of real life. The iambic pentameter was king, the new was non-existent, and there was no concept whatsoever that any of this could change.

Now contrast this with, say, Macbeth. This is (obviously) a tragedy, about a lord who, rather than failing to recognise a tragic flaw in his personality until right at the very end and then holding out for a protracted death scene in which to explain all of it (as in a Greek tragedy), starts off a good and noble man who is sent mental by a trio of witches. Before Shakespeare’s time a playwright could be lynched before he made such insulting suggestions about the noble classes (and it is worth noting that Macbeth wasn’t written until he was firmly established as a playwright), but Shakespeare was one of the first of a more common-born group of playwrights, raised an actor rather than aristocrat. The main characters may be lords & kings it is true (even Shakespeare couldn’t shake off the old tropes entirely, and it would take a long time for that to change), but the driving forces of the plot are all women, three of whom are old hags who speak in an irregular chanting and make up heathen prophecies. Then there is an entire monologue dedicated to an old drunk bloke, speaking just as irregularly, mumbling on about how booze kills a boner, and even the main characters get in on the act, with Macbeth and his lady scrambling structureless phrases as they fairly shit themselves in fear of discovery. Hell, he even managed to slip in an almost comic moment of parody as Macbeth compares his own life to that of a play (which, of course, it is. He pulls a similar trick in As You Like It)

This is just one example- there are countless more. Romeo and Juliet was one of the first examples of romance used as the central driving force of a tragedy, The Tempest was the Elizabethan version of fantasy literature and Henry V deserves a mention for coming up with some of the best inspirational quotes of all time. Unsurprisingly, whilst Shakespeare was able to spark a revolution at home, other countries were rocked by his radicalism- the French especially were sharply divided into two camps, one supporting this theatrical revolution (such as Voltaire) and the other vehemently opposing it. It didn’t do any good- the wheels had been set in motion, and for the next 500 years theatre and literature continued (and continues) to evolve at a previously unprecedented rate. Nowadays, the work of Shakespeare seems to us as much of a relic as the old Greek tragedies must have appeared to him, but as theatre has moved on so too has our expectations of it (such as, for instance, jokes that are actually funny and speech we can understand without a scholar on hand). Shakespeare may not have told the best stories or written the best plays to our ears, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t the best playwright.