In Britain, much ado about Shakespeare

Beware of entrance to a quarrel," Polonius advises in "Hamlet."

But "Sweet are the uses of adversity" counters Duke Senior in "As You Like It."

Either way, four centuries after William Shakespeare wrote these works and others, the person Britons voted their "Man of the Millennium" stands center-stage in a tempestuous debate about his relevance in the 21st century.

The controversy over the world's most famous playwright in the English language has led supporters to "cry 'Havoc' and let slip the dogs of war," as Mark Antony says in "Julius Caesar."

The argument first erupted last month, when the English literature department at Cambridge University - along with Oxford, the nation's most prestigious seat of higher learning - announced plans to drop a compulsory examination paper entirely devoted to the works of Shakespeare.

"The most unkindest cut of all," (Mark Antony again) wailed Shakespeare fans.

Instead, said Jennifer Wallace, the university's director of English studies, second-year students would study Shakespeare along with the works of other Elizabethan-era writers, such as John Dryden and Christopher Marlowe.

The threat by a university, seen as a traditional bastion of Shakespeare studies, to downgrade the man often referred to here simply as "the Bard" generated a mix of angry rebukes, thoughtful rejoinders, and sour comments. Shakespeare supporters and detractors across Britain have been entering the fray.

Paraphrasing Hamlet, "There is something rotten at Cambridge," declares Park Honan, emeritus professor of literature at Leeds University in the north of England and author of "Shakespeare: A Life."

The change, he says, would make Shakespeare seem "dwarf-like," adding, "Shakespeare teaches flexibility, subtlety, attention, and sensitivity to other people."

Jeremy Bate, a Shakespeare specialist at Liverpool University, agrees. "Shakespeare is the core of the world's literary canon," he insists.

"The notion that you can have a degree in English from a major university without a substantial acquaintance with Shakespeare is crazy."

Defending curriculum change

But the Cambridge proposal has its defenders, too.

Ronald Mulryne, professor of English literature at Warwick University, likes it because "there are dangers in separating Shakespeare too much from his contemporaries."

Russell Jackson, a Shakespeare specialist at the Bard's birthplace of Stratford-on-Avon, where his plays are staged all year round, thinks interest in Shakespeare remains as high as ever.

"I don't think what Cambridge wants to do will lessen his popularity," he says.

And Susan Brock, executive secretary of the International Shakespeare Association, hurries to the Bard's defense - with tongue firmly in cheek.

"If you think about it," she muses, "studying Shakespeare alongside his contemporaries should make people realize how great he was."

Shakespeare is not the only possible casualty of attempts by Britain's ancient universities to modernize the courses they offer.

Claims of 'dumbing down'

Last year, Oxford University faced charges of "dumbing down" its curriculum when it decided to scrap the compulsory teaching of Anglo-Saxon, also known as Old English, to students of English.

That meant ditching a requirement for an in-depth study of "Beowulf" and several other literary masterpieces of the Middle Ages.

One of Britain's most popular television hosts further ignited the debate.

Appearing as a celebrity guest on the local version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" Carol Vorderman was asked in which Shakespeare play the character Sir Toby Belch appears.

She didn't know, and missed the chance of winning $400,000. (The correct answer is "Twelfth Night").

Ms. Vorderman later attracted nationwide headlines by defending her lapse on the grounds that Shakespeare's work was "dull as ditch water."

That encouraged Hunter Davies, author of a popular book about the Beatles, to complain that Shakespeare was overrated.

"My theory is that he got in first with all the clichs about the human condition," Mr. Davies told the mass-circulation Daily Mail. "Readers Digest has done it much better since."

On the whole, however, Shakespeare's supporters appear to be in better voice than his detractors - "with foreheads villainous low," (Caliban, "The Tempest").

Frank Kermode, a top literary critic, says he would be "very surprised" if the reform to the Cambridge curriculum goes ahead next year as planned.

"The whole of our literature has to be estimated in relation to Shakespeare," Dr. Kermode says. "To edge him aside would be foolish."

And John Carey, professor of English literature at Cambridge's archrival, Oxford, argues, "If you don't know your Shakespeare, you can't properly read the literature that came after him.

"If I had to choose just one author, it would have to be Shakespeare."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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