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The danger of a historical selectivity

19 April 2013

It is too easy to judge an earlier era, says Paul Vallely

THE other day I went to see a performance of The Taming of the Shrew. It is not a text with which I have had any encounter since long before Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister. But it showed the danger of looking at history as though it were just a time-shifted version of the present. The highly polarised reaction to the death of Lady Thatcher taught the same lesson in a different way.

The climax of Shakespeare's play is the shocking ritual humiliation of a spirited woman, who is broken like a horse to tame her to the social conventions of her time. It is a problem piece because its central message is so at odds with post-feminist contemporary mores. Over the years, lovers of the Bard have tried various strategies to make the play acceptable. Academics have suggested that Shakespeare's intent was satiric. Actors have used irony, farce, or - in the case of the Zeffirelli film version starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor - the suggestion that passionate love outweighs all other deficiencies.

The production currently touring the UK will have none of that. It is by an all-male company, Propeller, which offers some of the best contemporary versions of Shakespeare. Muscular, intelligent, and bawdy, the company can shift seamlessly from belly-laughs to poignancy. In its Shrew, there was no redeeming love. It was, rather, a stunning account of domestic abuse. It ended in a scene of chauvinist triumphalism so disturbing that all the other characters distanced themselves from the male protagonist. The audience saw a reflection of its own transition from embarrassed unease to chilled horror.

Of course, there are still men who behave like this, but it is not the social norm. This was the present sitting in judgement on the past. In the outpourings over the death and funeral of Lady Thatcher, we saw, in friend and foe alike, a similar error: looking at the past as if it were the present - with an ahistoric selectivity in both eulogy and excoriation.

Reality is more complicated. Many of those whom Conservatives condemn as shirkers in the current debate on welfare, for example, are individuals whose jobs and communities were wilfully destroyed in the Thatcher era. They were the collateral damage in the crushing of the unions and the unleashing of entrepreneurial creativity. The Thatcher Government encouraged the growth of sickness payment as a method of disguising its soaring unemployment statistics.

Jobs have been both created and destroyed by the global economic growth, and then recession, which grew from the Thatcherite deregulation of the City. Yet, in the debate, both sides want it only their own way. The Labour Party embraces the creativity of the market, while lamenting its callousness. Conservatives insist that ours is a Broken Britain, while also maintaining that Lady Thatcher made it great again.

The vehemence of division is not so much about Lady Thatcher, but about how we have reacted to this reminder of her. The news of her death was received in comparative silence, a hairdresser said of the customers in his Manchester salon. It was in reaction to the uncaveated hagiography that followed that his clients, aged from 17 to 70, began to shout abuse at the radio.

It is all too easy to stand in judgement on a previous era, as both the theatre and the political soapbox have shown this week. Standing in judgement on ourselves is the far trickier business.

Paul Vallely is writing a biography of Pope Francis for Bloomsbury Publishing.

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