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.