His popularity survived the revolution to the point where it is acceptable for a communist leader to hail Shakespeare, not as a bourgeois reactionary, not as an imperialist capitalist running dog, but as the greatest writer who ever lived. When you stop to think about Shakespeare’s prevailing ideology, it is easy to see why.
Think of Shakespeare’s political context, the Elizabethan age. This was the era when England was the world’s boom nation. The Armada had been thrashed. English companies were forming and trading around the world. We were laying the foundations for the greatest commercial empire the world has ever seen; and yet of course it was also a time of domestic paranoia. There was no real political freedom – of course not, when there was always a risk that the Spanish would strike back, or that armies of secret Catholics would launch a Counter-Reformation, or that the Queen – a poor, weak woman – would be deposed by one of her charismatic earls. That was why Walsingham deployed his secret police. Authors and playwrights had to be very careful about what they said. If you offended the regime, it could be curtains. Thomas Kyd was tortured to death. Christopher Marlowe was probably bumped off by the secret service, in the course of that mysterious “brawl” in Deptford. Ben Jonson nearly had his ears and nose cut off.
Shakespeare himself played a very cool hand. He was, frankly, the poet of the established order. We don’t want to go back to the tumult of the Wars of the Roses, is the nub of what he is saying in the histories. We want to stick with the Tudor settlement. You can see why his message might be agreeable to Beijing. Look at what happens to the family members who are so impudent and ungrateful as to depose the gerontocrat King Lear. They get their comeuppance, all right. No wonder King Lear has always struck a chord in Japan and China and other societies where old age is particularly reverenced.
Look at what happens to the putschist Macbeth or to the Gang of Eight conspirators who kill Julius Caesar. They all come to pretty unsavoury ends. And what is the theme of Hamlet, that work of cosmic genius that Mr Wen watched yesterday? Well, it is also about a constitutional outrage, in which the King is murdered by Claudius; and when the battle is over and the stage is strewn with bodies at the end of Act Five, Shakespeare takes care to leave the ruling party in power. Fortinbras takes over from Hamlet (and remember, we are laboriously told at the beginning that he has a good claim to the throne). Kent and Edgar take over from Lear. Macduff takes over from Duncan. Antony and Octavius take over from Caesar. Usurpers never prosper, unless, of course, like Bolingbroke, they take over from bad kings like Richard III.
Shakespeare did occasionally get into hot water himself. He was spoken to very severely when he obliged the Earl of Essex, on the eve of his abortive rebellion, by staging Richard II – a play about a king who is deposed. Such was the anxiety about any play depicting a regicide that you could not buy a copy of Julius Caesar for 24 years after it was first staged. But Shakespeare never really fell foul of the secret police. He was too fly for that. He ended his life quite rich, by the standards of the day, and that is hardly surprising when you think that his plays contained so much poetry, so many insights into the human heart – and such ingenious defences for keeping things as they are, and keeping the ruling party in power.
Yup: he was the greatest writer of all time, but he also knew how to cope with censorship, the secret police and the absence of anything that we would now call pluralist democracy. Which is why, I venture to say, it is very safe and correct to admire him in Beijing.