King Rubbish the Awful

Last time you got a top 5 best English monarchs, but in the interests of balance and fair representation, it is worth remembering that the monarchs of England and Great Britain, like those of just about every other country, were on the whole a bunch of feckless idiots who hadn’t the faintest idea how to rule and were distinctly underqualified for the job. And here, to represent them as best (or worst) as possible is a Top 4 (because seriously, this post is long enough already without having to pick another one of the morons), distilling from a long and competitive list the four worst rulers ever to sit upon the throne of England. Or Great Britain.

Once again, we proceed in chronological order…

Ethelred the Unready*(978-1016) 

In his ‘History of the English-Speaking Peoples’, Winston Churchill describes Ethelred as ‘a weakling, a vacillator, a faithless, feckless creature’, and by all accounts that wasn’t a bad description. One of the few kings whose bad reputation doesn’t come from having fallen out with the Church or a subsequent King, Ethelred’s utter uselessness almost single-handedly ended Anglo-Saxon rule in England- twice.

Ethelred came to power at a time when Vikings had, after being kept out first by Athelstan and several subsequent generations of Saxon kings, began once again to pillage the coast of England. However, whilst other kings had faced down the invaders with an army at their back, when Vikings landed on Ethelred’s shores he simply paid them to go away. These ‘Danegeld’ payments were made in 991, 994 and 1002, costing England 56,000 pounds in total to buy a peace that kept being broken. On their own, this might have been fine, as even Alfred the Great had bought the Danes off to buy him time, but they utterly failed to stop the raids and Ethelred for his part did not prevent them from still coming. Rather than preparing for the inevitable open war that would surely result he instead became paranoid and made one of the most horrific and downright cowardly orders in history; that every single Dane living in England, even Anglicised Danes who had been living there for years, was to be assassinated on the same day. The St. Brice’s Day massacre was pure bloodthirsty genocide, as Ethelred’s men even burnt down churches full of people in one of the world’s most horrible displays of the savage side to human nature. One-third of the Danish population of England are estimated to have died, including a noblewoman called Gunhilde. Gunhilde’s brother, Swein Forkbeard, happened to be King of Denmark, and next year he came across the north sea and attacked England. Twice in the next ten years Ethelred paid the Danegeld again, costing a total of 84,000 pounds this time, before finally he was uprooted from the throne and replaced with Swein’s son Canute.

That wasn’t the end of the invasions Ethelred brought to England. He had married Emma of Normandy, who later married King Canute and, when neither of his sons produced heirs, this allowed the throne to pass back to Ethelred’s son Edward the Confessor. However, Emma’s brother Robert would later produce a son who would rise to become Duke of Normandy. It was this loose link to the Ethelred (Edward was his second cousin), that gave his claim to the English throne legitimacy, and led William, Duke of Normandy to invade and become William I of England.

Although that one can’t really be judged his fault.

*Ethelred’s nickname ‘the unready’ is actually a mis-translated play on his name; ‘red’ or ‘raed’ means ‘counsel’ in old English, and Ethelred roughly translates to ‘noble counsel’ (or ‘good advice’). His Old English nickname was actually ‘Unraed’, which roughly means ‘no counsel’ or ‘bad advice’. His name is, therefore, the Old English equivalent of a pun; ‘Good counsel the no counsel’ (jokes were very much in their infancy back then). Whether ‘no counsel’ should be taken to mean ‘ill-advised’ or ‘bad planner’ is unclear, but it illustrates the point that, whether he or his advisors were to blame, Ethelred’s reign was not a good one. Although, admittedly, he did apparently make some good legal reforms; just a shame about all the Vikings getting in the way.

John (1199-1216)

Everyone knows about king John and his general awfulness, even if their image is straight out of Robin Hood. The signs weren’t good from before he even took the throne; acting as caretaker ruler whilst his brother Richard (who almost made this list himself) was fighting the crusades, he both attempted (and failed) to rebel against him and then, when Richard was captured he (allegedly; the Church may have made this up) sent a message to the Holy Roman Emperor offering him a large sum of money not to let him go. An even larger sum eventually bankrupted England and got Richard home again, whereupon he promptly set off to France to get killed in a siege and landed John on the throne. This annoyed a lot of his French barons, who promptly switched their allegiance to John’s twelve year-old nephew Arthur instead, and when John had Arthur captured and killed he successfully alienated the king of France and most of his barons. With noble after noble allying themselves with the French, John lost all the French possessions his father Henry II had won, and then crowned the catastrophe by losing Normandy to the French as well. It was this that earned him the nickname ‘Softsword’.

Not content with merely losing half of modern France (and spending a ton of money in the process, and pissing everyone off with his heavy-handed attempts to keep the economy afloat, and dropping the Crown Jewels in quicksand for good measure), he then proceeded to argue with the Pope too. This, more than anything, cemented his dreadful reputation, since the Church wrote the history books; the Vatican effectively excommunicated the entire country and declared all baptisms that occurred illegitimate, and John responded by nicking a ton of Church land in an attempt to drum up some much-needed cash. This got John himself excommunicated, and under any other circumstance he would surely have been replaced in no time. However, with no other proper claimant to the throne, it was John’s barons who took the initiative, forcing him to sign the Magna Carta to ensure he toed to a line of some sort. Not that it worked, and the First Barons War started as a result. And the country got a French prince on the throne for a year.

Richard II (1377-99)

The reign of this most unmemorable of Richards (the only one of England’s 3 thus far not to die in battle) started with such promise. When the most famous of England’s peasant revolts took place in London in 1381 (in response to some particularly harsh post-Black Death economic measures), killing several officials at the Tower of London, the fourteen year old king was ‘volunteered’, presumably by his terrified advisors, to go and meet with their leader Wat Tyler. Upon being presented with a list of demands that would have made Lenin look like a Tory, Richard made the smart move (from both a political and a ‘keeping-your-neck-intact’ perspective) of simply agreeing with them and asking to meet the next day and go over the details. In that meeting, Tyler was killed, Richard was able to calm everyone down and the mob were dispersed without any of their demands met.

Unfortunately, Richard failed to utilise any of this tact and manners when dealing with his nobles, and as he grew older he grew particularly bad-tempered and unpopular (some historians believe he may have been schizophrenic or have some other personality disorder), particularly among his barons. Richard believed in the absolute royal right to rule and disliked having to appease his other landed gentry; this was not unusual at the time, but Richard was a vain man (the first to insist on being called ‘your majesty’) and lived expensively, wasting most of the money saved by peace. His belief in his own power also led him to become increasingly tyrannical. He packed the court with his favourites (and possibly a gay lover too) rather than the person best suited to the job, and lavished money on them; when asked by his barons to sack his Chancellor Michael de la Pole, he refused to dismiss ‘a scullion’ on Parliament’s wishes, and war was imminent. Richard lost, was returned to the throne (minus his favourites, many of whom were executed) by his uncle John of Gaunt*, spent eight years brooding about it and then started nicking the land of all the nobles who’d rebelled against him. When he finally took the land of Henry Bolingbroke, John of Gaunt’s son and heir to the throne, the country rallied to Henry and swept Richard from power (becoming Henry IV). He died in prison a year later, and history remembers him as another king who pushed Parliament too far.

*John of Gaunt was the dominant political figure of Richard’s age and was so called, for some reason, because he came from Ghent. His main claim to fame comes from the oft-quoted claim that everybody in Europe today is, statistically, his descendant.

Charles I (1625-49)

When we’re talking about pushing Parliament too far, it’s hard to trump the sheer idiocy of Charles I. Like his father James I, Charles was brought up to believe in the divine right of kings; that God had placed him on the throne and no man had the right to challenge his authority. Again like his father, he was also sympathetic to the Catholic cause, and was married to a French catholic. This was not sensible in a country such as England, where a hard line Puritan Parliament was a noble’s main source of funding and power and Catholicism was reviled across the land; but this might have been tolerated as it was for his father and son had Charles not taken to his role with such sheer arrogance. Charles dissolved Parliament in 1629 and arresting nine men after they disagreed with him, which was seen as downright tyrannical, and then attempted to rule without Parliament for 12 years, something even his father hadn’t dared try. With this major income source cut off, Charles embarked on a series of deeply unpopular, often inefficient and in places straight up illegal moneymaking techniques, which did nothing to improve his PR. When he attempted to introduce a new prayer book in Scotland without asking anyone first, the resulting backlash ended in military defeat and he was finally forced to call Parliament again. A month later, amid massive financial argument, Charles dismissed his Parliament, got trounced by the Scots again, and was forced to recall it. After getting half his advisers convicted of treason and Parliament granting themselves a sharp increase in power just to put two fingers up to Charles, Ireland chose that moment to erupt into religious civil war. Charles’ power was falling about around his ears, but not even this was enough to persuade the English to do something so bad-mannered as to rebel against their arrogant, unpopular, Catholic-sympathising king.

Indeed, had it ended there, Charles’ reign would probably have been almost a carbon copy of King John’s; military failure followed by disagreement with Church and nobility forcing Charles to hand much of his power over to the latter. Here, however, Charles played his trump card of insanely dumb ideas; marching into Parliament armed with 400 soldiers and attempting to arrest his five main opponents- which would have been fine were freedom from arrest within the chamber not one of the fundamental rights of Parliament, and the fact that they hadn’t done anything illegal. Having successfully alienated pretty much the entire country, Charles then proceeded to lose the English Civil war, become the only English king ever to get beheaded  and put the Puritan Taliban (sorry, Oliver Cromwell and co.) in charge of Britain. So thanks a balls ton.

And the worst part is, there’s even historical proof that it was all unnecessary. Charles’ son, Charles II, was also anti-Parliamentarian (digging up those who had executed his father and re-hanging their dead bodies, among other things), a Catholic sympathiser and a frequently absentee monarch, but when he remembered to recall Parliament his charm was such that he was cheered through the House of Commons and invited the members to the royal wine cellar for a drink. Charles II was a likeable, friendly character who disagreed with parliament about everything and still managed to enjoy 25 peaceful years in power. Charles I was an arrogant twerp who nobody liked, and we got one of Britain’s bloodiest wars out of it.

 

A final note; developments in my personal life mean that, at least for the moment, I’m going to have to once again drop the post count. For the immediate future, posts will be on Saturdays only

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Poverty Changes

£14,000 is quite a large amount of money. Enough for 70,000 Freddos, a decade’s worth of holidays, two new Nissan Pixo’s, several thousand potatoes or a gold standard racing pigeon. However, if you’re trying to live off just that amount in modern Britain, it quickly seems quite a lot smaller. Half of that could easily disappear on rent, whilst the average British family will spend a further £4,000 on food (significantly greater than the European average, for one reason or another). Then we must factor in tax, work-related expenses, various repair bills, a TV license, utility & heating bills, petrol money and other transport expenses, and it quickly becomes apparent that trying to live on this amount will require some careful budgeting. Still, not to worry too much though; it’s certainly possible to keep the body and soul of a medium sized family together on £14k a year, if not absolutely comfortably, and in any case 70% of British families have an annual income in excess of this amount. It might not be a vast amount to live on, but it should be about enough.

However, there’s a reason I quoted £14,000 specifically in the figure above, because I recently saw another statistic saying that if one’s income is above 14 grand a year, you are one of the top 4% richest people on planet Earth. Or, to put it another way, if you were on that income, and were then to select somebody totally at random from our species, then 24 times out of 25 you would be richer than them.

Now, this slightly shocking fact, as well as being a timely reminder as to the prevalence of poverty amongst fellow members of our species, to me raises an interesting question; if £14,000 is only just about enough to let one’s life operate properly in modern Britain, how on earth does the vast majority of the world manage to survive at all on significantly less than this? More than 70% of the Chinese population (in 2008, admittedly; the rate of Chinese poverty is decreasing at a staggering rate thanks to its booming economy) live on less than $5 a day, and 35 years ago more than 80% were considered to be in absolute poverty. How does this work? How does most of the rest of the world physically survive?

The obvious starting point is the one stating that much of it barely does. Despite the last few decades of massive improvement in the living standards and poverty levels in the world in general,  the World Bank estimates that some 20% of the world’s populace is living below the absolute poverty line of surviving on less than $1.50 per person per day, or £365 a year (down from around 45% in the early 1980s- Bob Geldof’s message has packed a powerful punch). This is the generally accepted marker for being less than what a person can physically keep body and soul together on, and having such a huge proportion of people living below this marker tends to drag down the global average. Poverty is something that the last quarter of the century has seen a definitive effort on the part of humanity to reduce, but it’s still a truly vast issue across the globe.

However, the main contributing factor to me behind how a seemingly meagre amount of money in the first world would be considered bountiful wealth in the third is simply down to how economics works. We in the west are currently enjoying the fruits of two centuries of free-market capitalism, which has fundamentally changed the way our civilisation functions. When we as a race first came up with the concept of civilisation, of pooling and exchanging skills and resources for the betterment of the collective, this was largely confined to the local community, or at least to the small-scale. Farmers provided for those living in the surrounding twenty miles or so, as did brewers, hunters, and all other such ‘small businessmen’, as they would be called today. The concept of a country provided security from invasion and legal support on a larger scale, but that was about it; any international trade was generally conducted between kings and noblemen, and was very much small scale.

However, since the days of the British Empire and the Industrial Revolution, business has got steadily bigger and bigger. It started out with international trade between the colonies, and the rich untapped resources the European imperial powers found there, moved on to the industrial scale manufacture of goods, and then the high-intensity sale of consumer products to the general population. Now we have vast multinational companies organising long, exhaustive chains of supply, manufacture and retail, and our society has become firmly rooted in this intense selling international economy. Without constantly selling vast quantities of stuff to one another, the western world as we know it simply would not exist.

This process causes many side effects, but one is of particular interest; everything becomes more expensive. To summarise very simply, the basic principle of capitalism involves workers putting in work and skill to increase the value of something; that something then gets sold, and the worker then gets some of the difference between cost of materials and cost of sale as a reward for their effort. For this to work, then one’s reward for putting in your effort must be enough to purchase the stuff needed to keep you alive; capitalism rests on the principle of our bodies being X% efficient at turning the food we eat into the energy we can use to work. If business is successful, then the workers of a company (here the term ‘workers’ covers everyone from factory floor to management) will gain money in the long term, enabling them to spend more money. This means that the market increases in size, and people can either sell more goods or start selling them for a higher price, so goods become worth more, so the people making those goods start getting more money, and so on.

The net result of this is that in an ‘expensive’ economy, everyone has a relatively high income and high expenditure, because all goods, taxes, land, utilities etc. cost quite a lot; but, for all practical purposes, this results in a remarkably similar situation to a ‘cheap’ economy, where the full force of western capitalism hasn’t quite taken hold yet- for, whilst the people residing there have less money, the stuff that is there costs less having not been through the corporation wringer. So, why would we find it tricky to live on less money than the top 4% of the world’s population? Blame the Industrial Revolution.

Connections

History is a funny old business; an endless mix of overlapping threads, intermingling stories and repeating patterns that makes fascinating study for anyone who knows where to look. However, the part of it that I enjoy most involves taking the longitudinal view on things, linking two seemingly innocuous, or at least totally unrelated, events and following the trail of breadcrumbs that allow the two to connect. Things get even more interesting when the relationship is causal, so today I am going to follow the trail of one of my favourite little stories; how a single storm was, in the long run, responsible for the Industrial revolution. Especially surprising given that the storm in question occurred in 1064.

This particular storm occurred in the English Channel, and doubtless blew many ships off course, including one that had left from the English port of Bosham (opposite the Isle of Wight). Records don’t say why the ship was making its journey, but what was definitely significant was its passenger; Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex and possibly the most powerful person in the country after King Edward the Confessor. He landed (although that might be overstating the dignity and intention of the process) at Ponthieu, in northern France, and was captured by the local count, who subsequently turned him over to his liege when he, with his famed temper, heard of his visitor: the liege in question was Duke William of Normandy, or ‘William the Bastard’ as he was also known (he was the illegitimate son of the old duke and a tanner). Harold’s next move was (apparently) to accompany his captor to a battle just up the road in Brittany. He then tried to negotiate his freedom, which William accepted, on the condition that he swear an oath to him that, were the childless King Edward to die, he would support William’s claim to the throne (England at the time operated a sort of elective monarchy, where prospective candidates were chosen by a council of nobles known as the Witengamot). According to the Bayeux tapestry, Harold took this oath and left France; but two years later King Edward fell into a coma. With his last moment of consciousness before what was surely an unpleasant death, he apparently gestured to Harold, standing by his bedside. This was taken by Harold, and the Witengamot, as a sign of appointing a successor, and Harold accepted the throne. This understandably infuriated William, who considered this a violation of his oath, and subsequently invaded England. His timing of this coincided with another distant cousin, Harald Hardrada of Norway, deciding to push his claim to the throne, and in the resulting chaos William came to the fore. He became William the Conqueror, and the Normans controlled England for the next several hundred years.

One of the things that the Norman’s brought with them was a newfound view on religion; England was already Christian, but their respective Church’s views on certain subjects differed slightly. One such subject was serfdom, a form of slavery that was very popular among the feudal lords of the time. Serfs were basically slaves, in that they could be bought or sold as commodities; they were legally bound to the land they worked, and were thus traded and owned by the feudal lords who owned the land. In some countries, it was not unusual for one’s lord to change overnight after a drunken card game; Leo Tolstoy lost most of his land in just such an incident, but that’s another story. It was not a good existence for a serf, completely devoid of any form of freedom, but for a feudal lord it was great; cheap, guaranteed labour and thus income from one’s land, and no real risks concerned. However the Norman church’s interpretation of Christianity was morally opposed to the idea, and began to trade serfs for free peasants as a form of agricultural labour. A free peasant was not tied to the land but rented it from his liege, along with the right to use various pieces of land & equipment; the feudal lord still had income, but if he wanted goods from his land he had to pay for it from his peasants, and there were limits on the control he had over them. If a peasant so wished, he could pack up and move to London or wherever, or to join a ship; whatever he wanted in his quest to make his fortune. The vast majority were never faced with this choice as a reasonable idea, but the principle was important- a later Norman king, Henry I, also reorganised the legal system and introduced the role of sheriff, producing a society based around something almost resembling justice.

[It is worth noting that the very last serfs were not freed until the reign of Queen Elizabeth in the 1500s, and that subsequent British generations during the 18th century had absolutely no problem with trading in black slaves, but they justified that partly by never actually seeing the slaves and partly by taking the view that the black people weren’t proper humans anyway. We can be disgusting creatures]

A third Norman king further enhanced this concept of justice, even if completely by accident. King John was the younger brother of inexplicable national hero King Richard I, aka Richard the Lionheart or Couer-de-Lion (seriously, the dude was a Frenchman who visited England twice, both to raise money for his military campaigns, and later levied the largest ransom in history on his people when he had to be released by the Holy Roman Emperor- how he came to national prominence I will never know), and John was unpopular. He levied heavy taxes on his people to pay for costly and invariably unsuccessful military campaigns, and whilst various incarnations of Robin Hood have made him seem a lot more malevolent than he probably was, he was not a good King. He was also harsh to his people, and successfully pissed off peasant and noble alike; eventually the Norman Barons presented John with an ultimatum to limit his power, and restore some of theirs. However, the wording of the document also granted some basic and fundamental rights to the common people as well; this document was known as the Magna Carta; one of the most important legal documents in history, and arguably the cornerstone in the temple of western democracy.

The long-term ramifacations of this were huge; numerous wars were fought over the power it gave the nobility in the coming centuries, and Henry II (9 years old when he took over from father John) was eventually forced to call the first parliament; which, crucially, featured both barons (the noblemen, in what would soon become the House of Lords) and burghers (administrative leaders and representatives of the cities & commoners, in the House of Commons). The Black Death (which wiped out most of the peasant population and thus raised the value of the few who were left) greatly increased the value and importance of peasants across Europe for purely economic reasons for a few years, but over the next few centuries multiple generations of kings in several countries would slowly return things to the old ways, with them on top and their nobles kept subservient. In countries such as France, a nobleman got himself power, rank, influence and wealth by getting into bed with the king (in the cases of some ambitious noblewomen, quite literally); but in England the existence of a Parliament meant that no matter how much the king’s power increased through the reign of Plantagenets, Tudors and Stuarts, the gentry had some form of national power and community- and that the people were, to some nominal degree, represented as well. This in turn meant that it became not uncommon for the nobility and high-ranking (or at least rich) ordinary people to come into contact, and created a very fluid class system. Whilst in France a middle class businessman was looked on with disdain by the lords, in Britain he would be far more likely to be offered a peerage; nowadays the practice is considered undemocratic, but this was the cutting edge of societal advancement several hundred years ago. It was this ‘lower’ class of gentry, comprising the likes of John Hampden and Oliver Cromwell, who would precipitate the English Civil War as King Charles I tried to rule without Parliament altogether (as opposed to his predecessors  who merely chose to not listen to them a lot of the time); when the monarchy was restored (after several years of bloodshed and puritan brutality at the hands of Cromwell’s New Model Army, and a seemingly paradoxical few decades spent with Cromwell governing with only a token parliament, when he used them at all), parliament was the political force in Britain. When James II once again tried his dad’s tactic of proclaiming himself god-sent ruler whom all should respect unquestioningly, Parliament’s response was to invite the Dutch King William of Orange over to replace James and become William III, which he duly did. Throughout the reign of the remaining Stuarts and the Hanoverian monarchs (George I to Queen Victoria), the power of the monarch became steadily more and more ceremonial as the two key political factions of the day, the Whigs (later to become the Liberal, and subsequently Liberal Democrat, Party) and the Tories (as today’s Conservative Party is still known) slugged it out for control of Parliament, the newly created role of ‘First Lord of the Treasury’ (or Prime Minister- the job wasn’t regularly selected from among the commons for another century or so) and, eventually, the country. This brought political stability, and it brought about the foundations of modern democracy.

But I’m getting ahead of myself; what does this have to do with the Industrial Revolution? Well, we can partly blame the political and financial stability at the time, enabling corporations and big business to operate simply and effectively among ambitious individuals wishing to exploit potential; but I think that the key reason it occurred has to do with those ambitious people themselves. In Eastern Europe & Russia, in particular, there were two classes of people; nobility who were simply content to scheme and enjoy their power, and the masses of illiterate serfs. In most of Western Europe, there was a growing middle class, but the monarchy and nobility were united in keeping them under their thumb and preventing them from making any serious impact on the world. The French got a bloodthirsty revolution and political chaos as an added bonus, whilst the Russians waited for another century to finally get sufficiently pissed of at the Czar to precipitate a communist revolution. In Britain, however, there were no serfs, and corporations were built from the middle classes. These people’s primary concerns wasn’t rank or long-running feuds, disagreements over land or who was sleeping with the king; they wanted to make money, and would do so by every means at their disposal. This was an environment ripe for entrepreneurism, for an idea worth thousands to take the world by storm, and they did so with relish. The likes of Arkwright, Stephenson and Watt came from the middle classes and were backed by middle class industry, and the rest of Britain came along for the ride as Britain’s coincidentally vast coal resources were put to good use in powering the change. Per capita income, population and living standards all soared, and despite the horrors that an age of unregulated industry certainly wrought on its populace, it was this period of unprecedented change that was the vital step in the formation of the world as we know it today. And to think that all this can be traced, through centuries of political change, to the genes of uselessness that would later become King John crossing the channel after one unfortunate shipwreck…

And apologies, this post ended up being a lot longer than I intended it to be

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.