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Not to be, thanks. (Image Design: Archi Banal)
Not to be, thanks. (Image Design: Archi Banal)

Pop CultureOctober 14, 2022

Hear me out: Shakespeare shouldn’t get public funding

Not to be, thanks. (Image Design: Archi Banal)
Not to be, thanks. (Image Design: Archi Banal)

He’s the most famous playwright in the world, so why should he get any of our taxpayer dollars? Sam Brooks argues against public money going towards one William Shakespeare.

If I asked you to name a playwright off the top of your head, you would probably name William Shakespeare, and if I asked you to name a play off the top of your head, it would probably be one of his too. The dude is the most celebrated playwright in the world, and has been heralded as a genius everywhere, English-speaking or otherwise, for centuries. 

He’s had it good for a while in New Zealand, too. He’s more known than any playwright that comes from here and chances are, at any given moment, there’s a Shakespeare production going on somewhere in the country, be it in a high school, a community theatre or a professional theatre. He’s certainly not going away anytime soon.

Which is why I think that we need to stop devoting public money towards him. Let’s cut that colonial cord.

The view of the Auckland sky from the inside of the Pop-Up Globe.

I’m not against Shakespeare, despite many good reasons to be (racism, sexism, colonial superiority, the usual). Good Shakespeare is good Shakespeare, like good coffee is good coffee. I got into theatre because of a Shakespeare production – the ‘08 Unitec production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that was set at a mental asylum. It’s more about whether public money should be devoted towards a playwright who shows no sign of becoming unpopular, forgotten, or even not performed in our lifetime.

Arts funding is an easy target for people complaining about government spending. It’s simple to look at a piece of art, be it a dance show, an avant-garde sculpture, or Shakespeare, and say, “That’s not for me, why are my tax dollars going towards that?” I could say the same about a road in Westport that I never intend to use, but I digress. People also don’t know how much it actually costs to make art, so what seems like a lot of money on paper ends up being… not a lot when you factor in paying people, making the art, yada yada yada. This is your reminder that Creative New Zealand’s annual budget this year was a third of what it took to make one episode of Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.

Shakespeare isn’t actually getting a lot of our public money at the moment. The Shakespeare Globe Centre, which hosts the annual Sheila Winn competition and sends high schoolers to the Globe stage in London, has been in the press recently after losing the $31,000 it receives annually from Creative New Zealand. However, in a recent “call for inquiry” into the organisation, a petitioner for the SGCNZ stated that they could “survive” without that loss in funding. That $31,000 makes up 10% of it’s $300,000 annual budget.

The most public money devoted towards Shakespeare at the moment is probably funding mainstage companies to put on his work. Auckland Theatre Company is doing its first Shakespeare in a decade, King Lear, and even I find it hard to begrudge the biggest, mainstage and mainstream theatre company in Auckland a Shakespeare every now and then, as a treat. It probably helps that nobody has to pay licensing fees to put on Shakespeare – he is well out of copyright at this point, and is not knocking on doors to collect those royalties. (I’m going to put it out there and say that a not insignificant reason why he continues to be part of the canon is nobody actually has to pay 10% of their box office to put one of his plays on, which they’d do for any living and many dead playwrights, and that matters almost as much as the scripts being quite good.)

We know that there is a limited amount of money for the arts. I wrote it about it last week and  Stuff has diligently reported on recent cuts as well. When I hear the Shakespeare Globe Centre, which I think does good work getting high schoolers involved in the arts, isn’t getting its funding renewed and that, in the same round, four Māori-led organisations have been picked up for funding, I go… “Yep, sounds pretty right to me.”

It’s not a matter of whether the work is good or not. Shakespeare is indisputably pretty good. It’s a matter of whether putting public money towards Shakespeare is the best, most prudent, or most beneficial use of that money. Shakespeare will live on without public funding. Other organisations won’t. 

It’s not even really about the money. It’s also about the space we give Shakespeare in society, the extremely high pedestal we put him on. Shakespeare still has a chokehold in this country of what the general public thinks of as theatre, although I pray that’s changing. The reality is that the bulk of the theatre that is made, and funded, in this country is nothing like Shakespeare. But if what we think of when we think of theatre is a dude who lived half a millennium ago, that’s a real problem. 

Shakespeare has absolutely turned a lot of people onto theatre, but I’d also flip that around and ask another question: how many people has Shakespeare turned off theatre? How many people’s first experience with a play script was a browned, dog-eared copy of a play that, on first glance, felt like it was written in another language, and have never darkened the door of a theatre as a result?

A curtain call at the Pop-Up Globe.

Imagine if, instead of – or as well as – the Sheila Winn Festival, we had a Victor Rodger festival. A Briar Grace-Smith festival. A Whiti Hereaka festival, a Jacob Rajan festival, so on and so forth. Just imagine what our country’s understanding of what theatre is, and could be, would be if our first introduction to theatre was through a writer who had any concept of what Aotearoa was. 

Shakespeare will survive without public money. Believe me, when the world ends, all that’ll be left are cockroaches, Cher and amateur theatre troupes doing their unique post-apocalyptic twist on the bard. He’s uncancellable, and again, it helps that people don’t have to pay to put his plays on. Our institutions give money to what they value, and we in turn space and precedence to what we’re told to value. 

So let me ask: can you think of any other industry whose peak was a white guy who lived in England four hundred years ago? Colonisation doesn’t count.

Keep going!