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.

Normally I’m not really into tennis…

…but today I’ll make an exception. To be honest, until yesterday I was barely aware the Australian Open was on at all, and certainly had no idea of anyone’s progress. But then, at about nine in the morning, I walked into it on the TV. Andy Murray vs Novak Djokovic, semi-final. Murray is two matches away from his first ever grand slam, but he has to get through not only the world number one, but also his arch-nemesis, Rafael Nadal.
Tennis isn’t really a huge thing for me- I quite like it as a game, I watch Wimbledon when it’s on, I know the basics, but ultimately I’m not that good at it and don’t care about it much. Nonetheless, Murray is a Scot, and as a reasonably patriotic quarter-Scottish Brit who’s fairly into his sport, I thought I’d try too keep track of the game as it went on.
As the day progressed, I had very little time to watch it- I caught a 20-minute patch of a few exchanged third-set games during which precisely nothing happened, dropped in at the start of the 5th set, and rushed over to catch the last two games. Not much, but enough to give me a vague insight into the game as it unfolded. For those who don’t know, Djokovic took the first set, but Murray played impressively to take the second and the third (in a tie break), breaking back on numerous occasions. Djokovic won the fourth set 6-1, Murray had to break back to draw level at 5-5 in the fifth, before conceding a break and the match. Final result: Djokovic 6-3, 3-6, 6-7, 6-1, 7-5.
To me, as the match went on, Murray was playing like, well, how he always does when up against stiff competition. I don’t know if it’s just  mine or the British nation’s collective pessimism, but one can never really be sure of anything when watching Andy Murray- you always get the sensation that he’s about to fire a shot into the net or overshoot. As I say- probably just mindless pessimism.
But, for all his imperfections, for all my worries, for all the cynics’ pessimism about how generally useless we British are at everything (for the record, I HATE those people), on that drawn-out Friday (and for Murray, Saturday), I was proud of him, proud of my man. Completely stupid, I know- I have no personal knowledge of or link with the guy, have a self-professed indifference towards tennis as a rule, and all in all have no real connection with him, let alone a reason to mentally refer to him as ‘mine’. In fact, the only reason I (and quite a lot of his other fans too I suspect) follow him is due to some bull-headed British national pride (my apologies to all Scots reading this, but at least I would refer to him as British if he were losing as well). But that isn’t the point I’m trying to make here. Murray made Djokovic work for his place in the final with every single gram of sweat and effort in his body- the match was almost 5 hours long, the longest match Murray has ever played, and I can attest to the fact that Djokovic spent the majority of the match looking completely knackered. Djokovic didn’t win that match- tennis won, Murray’s mental state won, his estimations and admiration won, sport won.
Sport can be a terrible, horrible thing. It can sometimes be dull, there can sometimes be meaningless thrashings, there can sometimes be horrendous foul play or downright cheating, and worst of all can be sport played solely to win, played solely for the ego of the participants. But sport can also be wonderful, beautiful. Murray’s match was an example of that. He showed us how to fail- with all the effort, pride and dignity of your proudest and greatest victories. There is sport at its best. Nigel Wray, owner of the London rugby club Saracens, famously takes the view that ‘sport’ is the wrong word- ‘teams’ is better, because it emphasises the importance of sport’s camaraderie, friendship, values and teamwork. Even a solo sport like tennis is a game far better played when the emphasis is skill and enjoyment, not just grinding out victories. Rugby is my sport for precisely that reason- it’s ethos and spirit, but any sport played in the correct way, with the correct mindset, is the reason for playing sport at all. Thank you, Andy Murray- you lost magnificently