“I say there is no darkness but ignorance,” wrote Shakespeare and, if that’s true, ours is the darkest age ever.
How pathetic that the term ‘Dark Age’ is now used to describe the Middle Ages. “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”
That was the time when men of the Carolingian empire began to aim those sublime cathedrals at the sky, when Hildegard von Bingen was composing those piercingly beautiful sounds, when Gregorian chant was filling the most glorious edifices ever built, when iconography not just presaged Renaissance painting but practically created it – the time of Anselm, Abelard, Duns Scotus, Bernard of Clairvaux, when some of history’s greatest minds uncovered some of the mystery of God.
There was less information to go around then, but infinitely more knowledge. And ours is an age that reminds us every day of the gaping chasm that exists between the two. It’s as if they nowadays exist in an inverse relationship: the more of the former, the less of the latter. Our is the real dark age.
To paraphrase ever so slightly, some are born ignorant, some achieve ignorance, and some have ignorance thrust upon them. That’s what modernity does, thrusting ignorance on the masses, having first primed them by egalitarian non-education.
To be fair, the illiterate have always been with us. And, if we define illiteracy strictly as the inability to read and write, there must have been more of them in Shakespeare’s time than now. But never before have the cultural barbarians been so proud of their barbarism. Never before have they been so smug.
Such unfashionable thoughts crossed my mind this morning, when I watched my customary 10 minutes of Sky News at breakfast. Two guests, a man and a woman, were commenting on yesterday’s news, and during my 10 minutes they talked about Shakespeare, specifically about the TV special dedicated to the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death.
As I found out to my bilious amazement, that programme, featuring Dame Judi Dench and some other great actors, was handily beaten in the ratings by a concurrent rerun of a Dad’s Army episode from 40 years ago.
Now, over my 30 years of living in London, I’ve probably watched my lapidary 10 minutes of that series. Admittedly, that’s not sufficient to form a qualified judgement but, for what it’s worth, I quite liked what I saw. I found the show reasonably inoffensive, if not captivating enough to make me want to watch another 10 minutes.
That’s about as much as I can say about Dad’s Army in good conscience. There’s quite a bit more I can say about the commentators’ reaction to the good news about the ratings war.
Rather than raving and ranting about the advent of a new Dark Age, they were quite good-natured about it. Most people, they said, find Shakespeare quite boring, which rather makes him irrelevant to modernity weaned on Dad’s Army, Neighbours and Eastenders.
Horses for courses and all that: Shakespeare was fine for the time of Elizabeth I, but not for the time of Elizabeth II, enlightened as it is by Google and Microsoft. We live in a democracy, don’t we? Majority rules, and in this case majority prefers Tey-Vey to Shakespeare. That’s what modernity is all about. People vote for politicians once every few years at the booths, and they vote for products every day at the till.
Shakespeare is our greatest contribution to world culture, acknowledged the commentators jovially, but let’s face it – he’s a minority taste now. That’s why he has lost, Dad’s Army has won, and that’s all there is to it.
The most obvious thought didn’t occur to either commentator or, even if it had, they knew better than to express it: Shakespeare is our greatest contribution to world culture specifically because he is, and always has been, a minority taste.
The greatest achievements of the human spirit have never been accessible to the majority, but this isn’t something that’s any longer possible to say with impunity. One can just about utter something along those lines when talking about nuclear physics or microbiology (both actually much easier to appreciate than a Shakespeare sonnet or a Bach fugue).
But say it about art and, depending on your interlocutor’s upbringing and temperament, you’ll be branded an elitist, a reactionary or even a fascist. You like Macbeth, I like Dad’s Army, they like hard porn – who’s to say one taste is better than others? They’re just different.
Like all great art, Shakespeare’s work can be enjoyed on many different levels. But it can be appreciated only on the highest one, where refined aesthetic, cultural and spiritual sensibilities reside.
That is the lot of the few, and always has been. However, a defining characteristic of our Dark Age, inaugurated by that great misnomer, the Enlightenment, is that it’s the crude, illiterate and uncultured who set the tone – to a point where their cultural betters are widely mocked as ‘irrelevant’.
Oh well, one can say so much on this subject. But getting worked up isn’t good for my health – and anyway, as we all know, “brevity is the soul of wit”.