A new book by professor Marjorie Garber of Harvard, Shakespeare and Modern Culture, is coming out next month to show us, according to the author, “that Shakespeare makes modernity and that modernity makes Shakespeare.” Or to put it another but equally paradoxical (or tautological) way, “the timelessness of Shakespeare is achieved by his recurrent timeliness.” If anyone can play this game, I would just like to add that the most timeless thing about Shakespeare in the 40-odd years since Jan Kott’s Shakespeare Our Contemporary has been the conceit of his timeliness. Or do I mean that the most timely thing has been the conceit of his timelessness? Either way, it does seem odd that our postmodern era, usually so averse to fine-sounding, even inspirational language like this about those once considered the “great authors” of the past, should have stuck so stubbornly to this quasi-scriptural approach to the writings of a 444-year-old Warwickshire poacher.
Every August, as regularly as the geese fly south for winter, there are complaints in the British press about the ever-increasing number of candidates who are getting As and Bs on the main secondary school leaving and university entrance exam for 18-year-olds, called A-levels. Nothing seems to be able to stop this inexorable decline in standards, however much people continue to complain about it. But of course the people who complain about it are the same people who, through their elected representatives, created the expansion of higher education in Britain that has brought it about. If there is a demand for more people with As and Bs at A-level— and therefore the theoretically necessary qualifications for university entrance—then the exam system must increase the supply.
The problem, if there is one, arises only because people had become used to thinking of the exams as what the educationists call “norm-referenced,” and now the norm has been deformed. The bell of the bell curve has been pushed rightward, so that it now looks more like a whale than a camel.