Some thoughts on Shakespeare and Bardolatry in honor of the 400th anniversary of his death (23 April 2016).
Enjoying Shakespeare is a badge of honor in the Western world. Tell anyone you actually enjoy the Bard and chances are they will response with some type of awe. “You must be so intelligent!” is a common response I receive. Alternatively, if you tell someone you dislike, nay, even hate, the Bard, they may respond with contempt (unless, by chance, they too suffered through his works in high school and prayed never to have to read his plays again). It’s a strange dynamic. If you like the Bard, you’re apparently part of the intelligentsia. If you do not like the Bard, you’re apparently uncultured. Meanwhile, most people probably have not picked up a Shakespeare play since they left school.
And Shakespeare is, of course, a school staple. Beginning in high school, most Americans will read at least Romeo and Juliet (teens can relate to teens falling in love, you know) and one or maybe two of the tragedies (probably Hamlet and maybe Macbeth). In college, it’s still considered strange if an English major somehow manages to graduate without a course on Shakespeare. Do they even deserve this degree?! But after school, Shakespeare can sort of fade away, becoming just another pop culture reference. But, frankly, liking or enjoying Shakespeare has nothing to do with one’s intelligence. There are plenty of reasons one might not like Shakespeare, including:
- thinking the plots are silly
- finding a play misogynist or anti-Semitic
- not enjoying a particular genre
- having had a terrible experience with the Bard (like my freshman English teacher in high school *shudders*)
- just not liking Shakespeare. Some people don’t like pineapples or coconuts. It’s just not their thing.
And plenty of intelligent individuals have voiced criticism of Shakespeare over the years. Ben Jonson famously declared in “On Shakespeare” that he wished Shakespeare had done some more editing, even if he like d Shakespeare. Thomas Rymer in his “Short View of Tragedy” ripped Othello apart for what he saw as its ridiculous plot. Playwrights such as William Hawkins saw the need to rewrite Shakespeare’s plays so they fit the neoclassical unities. And J. R. R. Tolkien famously hated Shakespeare’s little elves, dismissing them in a 1951 letter. These individuals did not need to succumb to Bardolatry to keep their reputations. It is rather silly that so often we make appreciate of Shakespeare the bar to which one must aspire to be considered cultured.
Besides, the idea of Shakespeare being cultured is somewhat funny. He wrote to court audiences, true, but he also wrote for the common people and to make money. Yes, Shakespeare wrote for money. His plays are full of comic “low” characters, bawdy jokes, and innuendos. Much Ado About Nothing has an innuendo in the title. Romeo and Juliet is full of dirty jokes–something high school teachers might gloss over. Critics like to smooth these issues over by saying poor Shakespeare had to pander to popular interest–but plenty of people found these moments funny and many find them funny now. Basically, to say Shakespeare is for the elite and cultured only, you have to pretend chunks of his writing do not exist.
So, go ahead. Hate Shakespeare, if you must. I personally love Shakespeare, but there was a time when I did not. I remember the way my high school freshman English teacher destroyed the life of any work she taught. I remember thinking Shakespeare silly after I read Romeo and Juliet. I remember not understanding what anyone saw in his works at all. Then I saw Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet and my life began to change. But even if you never feel moved or inspired by Shakespeare’s works, remember you’re in good company.
16 thoughts on “Who Would Hate Shakespeare?”
Lol! I had a conversation with my doctor during my annual just last week.
Dr.: What authors do you like to read?
Me: Oh, I love Wodehouse, and Tolkien,
Me: And Shakespeare
Dr: Oh, out of my depth!
Me: *sad face* But…
“Besides, the idea of Shakespeare being cultured is somewhat funny.” Yes! I wish more people understood this. He’s so hyped up (and with reason, but more on that anon), that people take him WAAAAY too seriously, poor fellow. When introducing the Bard to the uninitiated, I tell them that he was all about “bums on seats,” at least metaphorically speaking. He was an entertainer. And part of his greatness was his ability to entertain people from various levels of society with the same plays.
But he created duds, and there are half-arsed scenes and plays. He was churning out entertainment, it was his livelihood, and as with the modern entertainment industry, sometimes his work was poor, sometimes it was ok, and sometimes it was astonishing!
I think he earned his place in literary history because when he is good, he is ABSOLUTELY AWESOME. So much so that we can shrug off his “meh,” work. And personally, I’m addicted to the language. Though I know that very language ends up being a barrier to many. Alas!
Thanks for this excellent and thoughtful post. ^_^
Whenever someone acts impressed that I like Shakespeare, I feel uncomfortable because I don’t think it’s that remarkable. You don’t really have to be a genius to understand him, though sometimes the language can take some work to untangle.
And, yes! Shakespeare is not perfect! It’s kind of funny how to pretend he is we need to kind of ignore some of his plays, especially the earlier ones. And then there’s always the argument: “That scene obviously is terrible because it was a collaboration and no way did Shakespeare write it! Must have been his collaborator the hack writer.”
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Same here. Appreciating the Bard is usually just a matter of seeing the right production of it or having a good teacher. A matter of luck, not genius.
Lol! As if great writers don’t have their off days. Every one of them I can think of has iffy stuff, unless they only wrote one book and are famous for it alone.
Yes! I hated Shakespeare until I had seen him in performance and then had a marvelous professor! I don’t feel I can take any credit for appreciating him.
Poor Shakespeare isn’t given room for error. It must be very trying. 😉
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I don’t think there was ever a time when I didn’t like Shakespeare…I’m thankful I haven’t had a bad experience studying the plays in high school, they were my favourite part of my English classes (alas that we would study the play at the beginning of the semester, so the remainder of the semester would be a snoozefest when we were done 😛 ). I’m also rather thankful I didn’t pursue a class or two on it in university; there was something special about approaching the plays on my own time, at my own pace.
On the Tolkien note: was it a Shakespeare play he was watching where he was disappointed about the trees not being really alive?
It is nice to read the plays on my own. I also like discussing them with other people, though, and the best discussions often come from classes since the people there tend to be invested. But I hear you on boring required reading. More Shakespeare for everyone! 😀
Yes, he was upset Macbeth didn’t deliver a real walking forest. Would have been hard to stage, though…. ;D
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lmao, that’s the play, thanks! I get a good chuckle whenever I remember that story, I find it so endearing for some reason xD
I also like discussing them with other people, though, and the best discussions often come from classes since the people there tend to be invested.
That’s true, and definitely a positive thing about taking a class on Shakespeare (and a downside for me not having taken a class!) But yes, I second the motion: more Shakespeare for everyone! 😀
Well, he wasn’t wrong. A real walking forest would have been ten times better! 😉
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Ahh Shakespeare elicits mixed reactions from me! I didn’t mind Romeo and Juliet, hated Macbeth, but loved Much Ado About Nothing xD Interesting post though – because yeah I never thought about this before. but now that you mention it and I think about it, its pretty true!
Shakespeare has some misses for me, too. Timon of Athens…not his best work. :S
The first Shakespeare I did was The Tempest in high school and I hated it…mostly I struggled with the language (Elizabethan English read like a foreign language to a 20th century Caribbean girl)..,and the by rote approach to teaching it didn’t help. In college, exploring the themes, watching some of the plays on video, and Othello (for…reasons) helped me make the connection…then when I discovered the poetry and in particular Sonnet 116, still one of my favourite poems, the beauty of the language came alive to me. I even quote Twelfth Night in the opening of my book Dancing Nude in the Moonlight. I enjoy Shakespeare in pop culture (yes, even films like Shakespeare in Love) and would definitely consider myself a fan of the Bard and even the language that once proved such a barrier to me accessing the work. So much so that when my niece was doing Shakespeare in primary school and they were using a condensed version of his collected works in modern English so that it was a story that could be accessible to kids I had to bite my tongue…whatever works, right?
The language does take some adjusting to! I think the adapted versions are supposed to get readers familiar with Shakespeare so they feel more comfortable reading the original language later, but I do struggle with the idea. It seems like if you divorce Shakespeare from his language, you’re taking away half of what makes his works so great.
“The language does take some adjusting to!” – it does but I was doing Chaucer in college alongside Winter’s Tale, King Lear, Othello, Twelfth Night…so, perspective…Shakespeare read like plain English next to Chaucer lol
“It seems like if you divorce Shakespeare from his language, you’re taking away half of what makes his work so great.” – I 100 percent agree…but I do understand, especially with younger readers, the need to make it more accessible.
Very true! At least Shakespeare was writing modern English! 😀
I personally think people who claim to hate Shakespeare merely haven’t had the right exposure or experience with it. So much comes from him, so to hate Shakespeare means hating a heck of a lot of other great stories and storytellers.
Yes! A great teacher can make all the difference!
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