Sports. Honestly. Since 2011

Sport is Shakespearean, and Shakespeare Would Have Loved Sport

In the run-up to this weekend’s 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare, his influence on almost every field of human activity, artistic or otherwise, has been examined at almost infinite length: on literature (inspiring, if not intimidating, almost every other great writer who has followed him); on music (directly inspiring a veritable musical canon, from Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique to Verdi’s operas); and even science (as the great Shakespearean critic Jonathan Bate has argued in the conclusion of his great work, The Genius of Shakespeare).

However, there is one hugely important area of human endeavour to many — it is the most important area of human endeavour — where the influence of Shakespeare has not been discussed at all, or only fleetingly, and that is sport.  And yet even here, the influence of Shakespeare, the greatest writer who ever lived and arguably the greatest artist of any kind who ever lived (if not the greatest human being, full-stop), can be detected.

Of course, sport as we know it now – by which I mean the great global industry of the 21st century – did not exist in Shakespeare’s time.  In Shakespeare’s lifetime (1564-1616), such sport as there was largely consisted of military-type activities – archery, horse riding, jousting – that was only a means to an end (preparation or training for war) and not an end in itself.

There were other sports in Shakespeare’s time that were more purely recreational, but they were played by relatively few people relatively rarely.  Tennis (or “real tennis”, the indoor version of the game that Roger Federer tried his hand at a few years ago) was already being played by wealthy aristocrats or members of the royal family, hence its reputation as “the sport of princes”, in Shakespeare’s lifetime and primitive versions of “football” were already centuries old by Shakespeare’s day (albeit they largely consisted of what we would today regard as riots, or at least riotous behaviour, as one town or village tried to get the ball into the “goal” of a rival town or village).

It is appropriate, therefore, that the only two sports of the recreational kind (rather than the faux-military kind) that Shakespeare refers to directly are tennis and football.  Famously in Henry V, Henry is so appalled by what he regards as the insulting gift of tennis balls that he receives from the French in response to his claim to their throne that he declares:

“When we have matched our rackets to these balls,

We will in France, by God’s grace, play a set

Shall strike his father’s crown into the hazard.”

And in King Lear, Lear’s faithful servant, Kent, calls the odious Oswald (the disobedient servant of Lear’s daughter Goneril) a “base football player”, which is surely a reference to the kind of wild, indeed uncontrollable, games of street football that Shakespeare would probably have watched himself during his childhood in Stratford on Avon.

So sport, as we know it, was rare in Shakespeare’s time, and consequently Shakespeare rarely wrote about it directly.  Indeed, the very word “sport” had a largely different meaning in Shakespeare’s time, referring not so much to organised games as to sexual activity, as when (again in Lear) the Duke of Gloucester boasts to Kent about the night his bastard son, Edmund, was conceived:

“There was good sport at his making”.

Nevertheless, there is an indirect, almost subtle Shakespearean influence on sport, even modern professional globalised sport of the kind played today, four centuries after his death.  As in almost every other area of human activity, Shakespeare’s writing (and particularly his plays and their greatest characters) give us a dramatic and narrative framework within which we can frame the most epic and extraordinary figures and fixtures in sport.

For example, in soccer (particularly English soccer, where even the humblest hack-writer can claim a national and spiritual kinship with Shakespeare) it is not unusual for games, players or managers to be discussed in explicitly Shakespearean terms.  Thus it was that when Jose Mourinho was sacked (for the second time!) by Chelsea at the end of last year, several of the finest English football writers, including the brilliant Henry Winter of The Telegraph and now The Times, described him as a tragic hero undone by one fatal flaw, which in Mourinho’s case is surely his seemingly ceaseless need to create conflict, even among his own players, in order to generate energy and excitement for future battles with rivals.

Similarly, if Mourinho is a Hamlet-type figure (forever fighting everyone until there is no-one left to fight), then Arsene Wenger can be regarded as a Richard II-type.  It is Richard’s most memorable line, issued near the end of the play and just before his own brutal murder, that has the greatest resonance for Wenger’s situation:

“I wasted time, and now doth time waste me”.

Many Arsenal fans, and many other admirers of Wenger from around the world of football, would argue that he, too, has “wasted time” – no less than a decade, during which he has seemingly put his assumed role of quasi-CEO ahead of his actual role of football manager, prioritising financial returns ahead of footballing achievements.  Now, inevitably, time is having its revenge on him, as Arsenal fans, exhausted, bored and disillusioned after yet another inevitable end-of-season collapse, turn their back on him in droves – hence, the thousands of empty seats at The Emirates stadium last night for the match against West Brom.  Time, it seems, is truly laying “waste” to Wenger’s grand plans – as, of course, it does to everyone’s, which is one of the greatest and most eternal lessons that Shakespeare teaches us about life, art and sport.

It is not only in football, or soccer, where Shakespearean characters and themes abound in sport.  In tennis, it is possible to see the dashing and brilliant Roger Federer as, like Wenger, a Richard II-type, who has ultimately been undone (and who may yet be overtaken in Grand Slam wins) by his more prosaic but more reliable rivals: first Rafa Nadal, and now Novak Djokovic, who are both stolid, sturdy Bolingbroke-types, who wear their opponents down rather than slicing them to pieces like Federer.  And in golf, Danny Willett’s recent triumph at The Masters over a collapsing Jordan Spieth was a classic example of a less obviously talented challenger seizing his moment to overtake a more obviously talented champion, or as Brutus puts it more poetically, more perfectly, in Julius Caesar:

“There is a tide in the affairs of men,

Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;

Omitted, all the voyage of their life

Is bound in shallows and in miseries.

On such a full sea are we now afloat,

And we must take the current when it serves,

Or lose our ventures.”

Willett certainly rode “the tide”, when it turned for him, to “fortune”, whereas Spieth, however many majors he goes on to win, will surely always remember his meltdown at Amen Corner, when he was literally “bound in shallows and in miseries” as he kept revisiting the water at Augusta’s treacherous 12th hole.

Also, as I have already suggested, Shakespeare would surely have recognised something familiar in all the various forms of football (other than soccer) around the world, from gridiron to rugby, from Aussie Rules to Gaelic football.  In many ways, all of these different forms of football (which, ironically, are predominantly played with the ball in hand) are derived not only from the primitive forms of football that Shakespeare himself would have grown up watching but from medieval warfare itself, with players “camped” on the opposition line and “laying siege” to their opponent’s goal or try-line.

And, of course, there is one other area of sport where the influence of Shakespeare’s words is keenly felt, and that – in the English-speaking world, at least – is in the language used by players, managers and fans alike, both in triumph and defeat.  In particular, English national teams in football, cricket, rugby and doubtless countless other sports are routinely described as a “band of brothers”, and even tabloid headline writers have been known to “Cry ‘God for Harry! England! And Saint George!’” when a plucky but unfancied English team is due to face some formidable foreign rival.

Of course, as Shakespeare himself knew better than anyone before or since, it is possible (indeed, easy) to overstate an argument.  I freely admit that the influence of Shakespeare on sport is not as great as on other artistic or cultural areas, such as the arts and politics. (MPs in England’s Parliament still refer to each other as “honourable”, seemingly completely missing the point that the word is used entirely ironically by Mark Antony when he is referring to Caesar’s murderers).  Equally, however, Shakespeare’s influence on all human life is so powerful, so protean, that his ideas, his characters and above all his words can be, and often are, employed to describe people and events in areas of life, such as modern sport, that Shakespeare himself could not even have imagined existing.

And if sport is often “Shakespearean” (both in the poetic sense of possessing epic grandeur and the more prosaic sense of simply quoting or referring to him and his work), then I am equally sure that Shakespeare would also have loved sport – professional, globalised sport of the kind that we know today.  And the reason for that is simple.  As a great dramatist – indeed, as the greatest dramatist the world has ever known – Shakespeare would undoubtedly have recognised that the greatest quality of sport is its dramatic quality – its infinite capacity to surprise.  From penalty shoot-outs in football to tie-breaks in tennis, from fumbles on the five-yard line to collapses at the 12th, Shakespeare would have seen the simple but profound human drama in sporting contests and surely loved it as much as we do.


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