Why Not Cancel ALL ART: Cressida's Absurdist Refusal to Bowdlerise Her Own Life
Updated: Mar 9
So often over the past twenty-five years I have heard colleagues say they wouldn't come to my productions of Shakespeare because they were turned off Shakespeare so much while they were at school. I hear this even from some English teachers while administrators have also made this suggestion. So if this is coming from people close to me, I can only estimate how much this sentiment might be endemic within the wider community. I've had students decide Harry Potter was more relevant than anything Shakespeare did and other students deciding they could do better anyway and so bugger off Shakespeare.
And yes, he is a dead white male and no doubt privileged! Yes, all his actors were men; some of whom played women. Yes, he's been dead a while ... so why should we pay homage to this ancient dated and socially irrelevant arse whose grammar was awkward and any contemporary dramaturg would suggest he change most of his plots and do massive rewrites! Why aren't students forced to study ancient Asian playwrights, ancient indigenous writings from around the world that have had a huge influence on contemporary art, literature and culture? Why aren't we simply cancelling Shakespeare and adopting the works of whatever contemporary writer has sway ... maybe Clementine Ford or her opposite in Jordan Peterson! Maybe even cancel all European inspired and prepared literature and art from both male and female creators because of their racial and cultural bias and only study factual art that was made by non-European male, female and non-binary individuals!
Better still, why not cancel the very notion of art and the creative imagination because of its potentially decadent, subversive, sexist and appropriating nature. Why not find a way to remove from all memory all artistic works created prior to 2023? Cancel the Beatles, Keats, Wilde, Artaud, Brecht, Mary Shelley, Pina Bausch, Carol Churchill ... and of course, Shakespeare! You get the picture!!! Fuck off all these Racist, homophobic, sexist and patriarchal pricks ... They were all constricted by constructed reality viewpoints imposed by imperialist strictures under which none were even vaguely aware of ... Hmmm ...
Shakespeare was a moment in history. That moment saw an incredible distillation of ideas, historical development and sheer audacity in cultural events that resulted in immediate persecutions of participants and also the exhilaration of artistic potential that resulted in people taking seriously the words of the licensed fool ... or the ALL LICENSED FOOL. And this point is one of the lasting and most significant yet under-valued points that Shakespeare actually raised in his work:
the role of art, artistry and literature as that of the cultural and social "all licensed fool".
We see the Fool as the Elizabethan equivalent of a comedian commentator. Yet art is its own FOOL! Art, literature, theatre and all artistic expression is a counter to all dogmas and agendas that seek to impose the WILL of some particular beholders of a given belief system on everyone. It is oppositional. But it can be manipulated to conform.
The New Propensity to Bowdlerise Theatre and Art
Thomas Bowdler two hundred years ago published bastardized versions of Shakespeare's plays removing what he considered to be offensive words. It seems in a world of cancelling and smug righteousness that a new bowdlerising is taking place. New Puritans have adopted the Fascist mode of decrying and disappearing that which is deemed decadent. While we haven't as yet seen museums devoted to the disappeared arts of the past with psychologists giving lectures on how the arts indicated mental illness and generally depraved minds; one can't be sure it isn't on some agenda from well-meaning left-wing fascists of the future!
So How Does Cressida Explain this Phenomena?
"Troilus and Cressida" is perhaps Shakespeare's most phenomenal play. It is deceptive on all counts and seems just an awkward and perhaps a flawed and unfocused work. However, on a closer study and when working on it, we discover it features all the social and political dimensions that have followed since the time of Shakespeare.
Cressida seems to be the victim of patriarchy and political intrigue. She is certainly traded as a commodity. However, we see all characters in "Troilus and Cressida" as traded for their own images. The very notion of war is a fabrication of narcissistic ego-driven constructivists; people who shape the belief systems into duties, honour and death!
Shakespeare's Cressida says: "But with my heart the other eye doth see.
Ah, poor our sex! this fault in us I find, The error of our eye directs our mind."
Cressida will fabricate a new reality as she leaves her naïve love and sexual attraction to a prince Troilus behind. She is the very opposite of the girl falling for the fairy-tale prince and the happy ever-after. For Cressida, sex is not a dirty word; though she recognises its potential devastating potential to destroy. In moving forward for a sexual relationship with a Greek trader, she never cancels her past dabbling in romantic love; however she recognises it as just as illusory, if not more so, than the arranged sexual partnering that is part of her father's deal. She is just like "your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass" ... etc. as suggested in the "bible".
Cressida's world is desolate and isolated. She is that lone woman along with the "manservant, maidservant, ox, and ass". She understands the absurdity of her situation and the whole situation of war and ego.
No other character in Shakespeare's works has ever done this. And she survives. Her reputation as a whore lingers on because she doesn't act like a victim.
How contemporary is this?
The Contemporary World of Shakespeare
Cressida recognizes the disturbing features of family, culture and destiny. These three disparate and nasty circles of her life then do not place her in some kind of social straitjacket. Rather she finds the way to manipulate them all. She would never believe the advice of her friends that it is OK to step into the cage with a wild tiger and not expect to be eaten; and then decry that tigers have got no right to kill young Cressida who steps into their cages ...
While most of Shakespeare follows fairly linear pathways and directions within the plays, "Troilus and Cressida" works on a substantially vertical plane. The plot is rambling. However, it details a psychological presence that baffles and even challenges the contemporary mindset. Troilus is a decent enough young guy brought up in a privileged white environment with his brothers and a particularly strange sister in Cassandra. But the power of Cressida is over-whelming and he is like a rabbit in the spot as it is about to be killed. He is frozen and totally confused by his object of obsession and naïve love.
Shakespeare as Absurdist
So before the moral fascist hacks begin cancelling Shakespeare, perhaps it is time to realign his work with the Absurdists. It isn't the theatrical form that is Absurdist in the way Beckett is absurdist; it is his views on the nature of the human condition that are essentially and culturally absurdist! And "Troilus and Cressida" is the most significant of his works. Cressida is the essential Absurdist recogniser. She knows the absurd situation could easily have her killed. In recognising the nature of her plight and even her own emotions, she is able to survive and possibly survive as well as any of her peers.
Troilus, on the other hand, is so locked into a sincere and honorable reality he can never see beyond the crap of his own straitjacket. He is doomed. This is his tragedy. His brothers are doomed. His father is doomed. His mother will see her grandson murdered by Greek hacks carrying out the orders of their masters (though not specifically seen in this play).
Shakespeare borrowed extensively from Greek plays and mythology. Yet he treated the subjects with very little respect in order to shape his own vision of humanity. Perhaps Shakespeare needs to be studied as a marker of original thought more so than as a master of literature and art. He survived cancelling and execution by being able to adapt to circumstances; often very dangerous circumstances! Very cleverly, he created a female character in Cressida who had to negotiate her own survival having also survived the cruel family situation that might well have destroyed most people. In some respects, this paralleled his own dire situation in an absurd pre-Bowdlerised world ...
Bookings can now be made for the 2023 DTC production of: TROILUS AND CRESSIDA by William Shakespeare.
There is a bar and some audience interaction with the cast. Don't expect the usual Shakespeare as this production approaches the work as if it has never been done before. It is a unique and very exciting approach to Shakespeare and one of his most problematic and least performed plays.
The production isn't about giving kiddies sticky gold stars. Rather it is about students and professional practitioners tapping insights and potential for presenting a work by one of the most essential contributors to Western Culture and Civilisation. In some respects it is Shakespeare negotiating his existence in a pre Bowdlerised world. Join DTC for an experience of Shakespeare's most contemporary and profound plays ... BOOK HERE