First, a new date has been proposed for the Anthropocene – the geological time period that marks the “Age of Man” – and it is 1610, when Shakespeare would have been coming towards the end of his stage career and working on the last of his plays, the so-called “Late Plays” or Romances, possibly even The Tempest, his great account of seafaring and the discovery of strange new worlds.
The reason this new dating of the Anthropocene is significant for Shakespeare is that it confirms the unique importance of the period in human history in which he was writing. We had always known that it was historically important, as it encompassed the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation and the supposed “Golden Age” of Elizabeth I, but now we know that it was geologically important too.
The Anthropocene is a geological term that denotes the period in the Earth’s history in which the existence of humanity has had such a profound impact that it has actually changed the nature of the Earth itself. The latest evidence about that impact, which has been published in the scientific journal Nature, suggests that the arrival of Europeans in the Americas (North and South) had an unprecedented effect on our planet, effectively marking the start of a new geological epoch.
The report outlines how new epochs are marked by clear signals, called “golden spikes,” that are captured in rocks, soil and ice, and it suggests that one such “golden spike” puts the start of the Anthropocene – a whole new era in the earth’s history – at 1610.
It is claimed that the European discovery of the Americas about a century before was the start of a huge global change. As one of the report’s co-authors, Dr. Simon Lewis of University College London, puts it: “The rapid global trade after that time moved species around. Maize from Central America was grown in southern Europe and Africa and China. Potatoes from South America were grown in the UK, and all the way from Europe to China. Species went the other way: wheat came to North America and sugar came to South America – a real mixing of species around the world. We saw these species jump continents, which is a geologically unprecedented impact, setting Earth off on a new evolutionary trajectory.”
Of course, it was not just “species” that were “jumping continents,” but people and their languages and ideas, and of course, Shakespeare was a huge beneficiary of this. A superb 2012 exhibition at London’s British Museum, “Shakespeare: Staging the World”, showed how the extraordinary growth in global trade and travel throughout the 16th century directly fed into Shakespeare’s work, from his having Hamlet study at Wittenberg (the epicentre of the European Reformation) to the whole plot of The Tempest, which is nominally set somewhere in the Mediterranean but in reality was based at least in part on the real-life shipwreck of a British ship, the aptly-named ‘The Sea Adventure’, off Bermuda in 1609.
It must be stressed that the new date for the Anthropocene is still being disputed; the marvellously named “Anthropocene Working Group” is reviewing the latest evidence and is due to announce its favoured start date in 2016 (the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death). Nevertheless, even if it does shift the start date from 1610, when Shakespeare was alive and arguably at his artistic peak, the latest geological evidence absolutely confirms the historical view that Shakespeare’s era was uniquely important in human history, and therefore it is fitting that it should have arguably the greatest chronicler of humanity, William Shakespeare, as its pre-eminent voice.
That’s the “good” news – now for the bad and the horrific.
There was a very different news story in Britain earlier this month that brought Shakespeare and his time to mind. On 2 March 2015, Britain’s biggest-selling newspaper, The Sun (an infamous red-top tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation), had as its sensational front-page headline: “You’ve just eaten your son”. The Sun quoted a story told by a British Muslim man, Yasir Abdulla, who had gone to Iraq to fight the extremists of the so-called “Islamic State”. He claimed that he had personally heard reports of an Iraqi woman whose son had been taken hostage by IS, and who had gone to the terrorists’ HQ to plead for his life. The woman was allegedly told to eat before being taken to see her son, and she duly ate the meal she was offered, only to be told after she had consumed it that she had, in fact, eaten the remains of her son, who the terrorists had killed shortly before.
The story was picked up on by several other British newspapers, including The Daily Mail and Metro. Nevertheless, it is safe to say that it is impossible to establish its absolute veracity, firstly, because that the man who told the story was an avowed opponent of IS and, secondly, because of the near-impossibility of verifying the truth (or otherwise) of any story about IS-held territory in Iraq and Syria. It is certainly true that this report would not have been checked as comprehensively as that by the scientists producing the new date for the Anthropocene.
For anyone who has read Shakespeare, or who is even dimly aware of what was probably his first great theatrical “hit,” this news story immediately reminds them of the gruesome ending of Titus Andronicus. Titus, seeking revenge for the murder of two of his own sons and the rape and mutilation of his daughter, murders the sons of Tamora, Queen of the Goths, puts them in a pie and feeds them to her. In fact, it is worth pointing out that such is the propaganda genius of IS, many of whose Western converts appear to be highly educated and skilled in the field of news manipulation, that it is not impossible that they themselves circulated or “planted” such a story, knowing that its similarity to the ending of a Shakespearean play was likely to strike many people in the West who read it.
If that is the case (and I stress that it is a big “if”), it would be another example of how, on occasion, different individuals and groups have used the works of Shakespeare to publicise or promote their own ends. For instance, Idi Amin, the bloodthirsty Ugandan director, claimed to be “the Last King of Scotland” (the title of the novel about Amin by Giles Foden, and of the award-winning movie adaptation of the novel), going all the way back to Macbeth. It was as if by associating himself with a famous Shakespearean character and play, he was somehow authenticating or dignifying himself. In a way, this is a real-life illustration of what Woody Allen calls “borrowed grandeur,” where a film-maker (even as great a film-maker as Woody himself) plays some classical music over a scene to cover its otherwise obvious deficiencies. In the same way, an ordinary news report about the latest atrocity becomes somehow grander, more horrifying, because of its association with the work of Shakespeare.
Perhaps the most extraordinary example of how Shakespeare’s characters and plots can be “used” or “borrowed” in this way is a fictional one. It is Borges’ brilliant short story, The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero, in which an Irish nationalist terrorist is unveiled as a British traitor, but to redeem himself (and to protect the cause for which he has been the figurehead) is offered the chance to be killed as a “martyr”. In desperation, because time is short and the truth may get out, the plot of Julius Caesar is lifted wholesale by the other nationalists, and the “traitor” is killed in a manner befitting of Caesar himself.
This “Shakespearification” (to use a rather ugly, ungainly term) of art and life is, of course, a testament to the enduring artistic power of Shakespeare – proof that the stories and characters he created nearly half a millennium ago are still directly relevant to our world today, and indeed are still being acted out. And that is precisely what is most troubling about this story about forced cannibalism in Iraq.
Much has been made of the fact that, with the global rise of Islamic fundamentalism, we are supposedly entering a “new Medievalism” – a return to the Middle Ages. Certainly, it has been a common theme of terrorist groups such as IS that they seek a return to a supposed “Islamic Golden Age”, when Islamic states and indeed Islamic empires were among the most powerful on earth. However, rather than return to a time of scientific discovery and relative religious tolerance (which marked many of the Islamic countries of the Middle Ages), the terrorists betray that tradition by concentrating on the worst aspects of Islamic Medievalism: barbarity; torture; and absolute, utter intolerance. (By the way, it is absolutely necessary to point out that these were also the worst aspects of Christian Medievalism; indeed, if anything, they were even worse under Christian rule in the Middle Ages than under Islamic rule.)
Shakespeare’s time, as the latest geological evidence confirms, was a truly remarkable time, but of course not always in a good way. The original success of Titus Andronicus was because it mirrored the bloody, brutal age in which it was written: it may have been set in ancient Rome, but the beheadings and de-tongue-ings (to coin another ugly, ungainly phrase) were absolutely of the time itself. It is certainly cause for reflection (to say the least) that, in some ways and particularly in some parts of the world, we might be returning to that time.
So, two recent news stories, which prompt two very different reflections about Shakespeare: the first, a detailed scientific study that confirms the singular nature of the time in which he lived (the time for which he would be the singular chronicler); the second, a deliberately sensationalistic news report (which may yet be discredited in the time to come) that shows how, in some ways, we are returning to the brutality and inhumanity that Shakespeare so brilliantly wrote about and reproduced on stage. And although they are very different, in subject matter and treatment, they are both further evidence, if it were needed, of Shakespeare’s universality. The great chronicler of the beginning of “the Age of Man” is also the writer of today’s (and almost certainly tomorrow’s) headlines.