Why Shakespeare?

I got no beef with the Bard, make no mistake. I’ve read and seen my share of plays and sonnets - more than some, less than others. Yesterday I sat through a middle school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and was shocked to find it actually quite good, which is quite an accomplishment for a bunch of 13 and 14 year old kids. (Well, not for MY 14 year old. I expect him to part the waters and heal the lepers. Them other kids, I was surprised.) The material is good stuff.

But is he the best author ever? How did his get that odd and particular place in the literary pantheon? He isn’t just the best known playwright in the English language, he’s arguably the best known author, period. In the big red LC subject heading books they just use one name as an example of how names are done and subheaded and such - he’s the one. There may be other playwrights who have entire festivals devoted to their work, but I can’t think of any. Nor can I think of any other authors who have whole companies. There is no Royal Shaffer Company.

Granted, he wrote some great plays during one of the great flowerings of the English language (Shakespeare, the Book of Common Prayer, and the King James Bible, all in spitting distance of one another) but, hell, so did plenty of other people, Marlowe most famously. But if we’re grading on a fame scale of a hundred, Bill is a 99 and Marlowe’s down in the mid 30’s, if that. Chaucer’s a better bet but still not even in the same league. The guy’s so famous you have to go to other disciplines to find anybody to compare to him - Mozart and Beethoven are the only ones I can think of who have the same kind of brand recognition who are old enough to be able to tell that they’re planning on sticking around. Maybe Disney, eventually? And we know what those guys looked like!

Accident of history? Space alien? Pedagogical fluke? Why him?

I don’t think the general claim is that he is the best author (well, playwright) ever. But he is extremely influential, was prolific, and we have access to a very large body of his work.

Well, Bloom certainly considers him to be the central figure of the Western Canon, just to name one.

He had a gift for language, capturing a truth with a well-turned phrase, and at a handy time. Also, he wrote really good parts for the actors.

He really was a once in millennium kind of writer, honestly. I’m not even the biggest fan in the world, but I have to admit that there is just no one who wrote so many memorable and touching lines.

I’d put Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables up with any Shakespeare work, but that is one work from one guy. Shakespeare has many amazing works.

Basically, if Shakespeare had only written Hamlet, I think we would be able to view it as one of the greatest literary works of the last 1000 years, but he went further. He also wrote brilliant plays like King Lear and Henry IV-V, which are all amazing.

He also had characters expressing their inner emotional turmoil in ways not previous expressed, or at least not as well.

Look at this response from Hamlet when asked why he “seems” to be bothered so extra deeply by his father’s death:

Not Shakespeare’s most famous section of a play, but an amazing response from Hamlet.

I think part of it is simply an artifact of British Colonialism. British culture went with their troops and traders all over the world. Shakespeare is great, and had a talent for capturing situations that span cultures fairly well. His works generally have remained current with audiences since they were first written, so they were often performed. So when exposed to things that the limeys thought were good, Shakespeare was one of those things that could most easily be embraced.

As for claiming Shakespeare is in a category all his own, I think that may be English-speaking chauvinism there. Molière’s works are nearly as iconic within the French-speaking world, and translate very well between cultures, too. Bashō is similarly regarded and revered. I’m less certain as to whom one might point to in Spanish works, though my gut feeling is that Cervantes may fulfill that role. It is my opinion that Shakespeare is unique in English literature, but not uniquely regarded as an artist.

(As another consideration: Shakespeare’s greatest works are tragedies. There is a school of thought that claims that only tragedies can be great works. Which gives him a leg up on some of the other authors I’ve mentioned. I reject that view, however.)

I would never claim that Shakespeare was the greatest author ever, since I know that I can’t fairly compare authors in different languages. I will, however, claim that he was the greatest English-language author ever.

And if you have doubt as to how great he was, consider the old joke that he uses too many cliches. Darned near everything he wrote has since become fundamentally imprinted on the language. Even from his most obscure plays, you can still find some lines that everyone knows, even if they couldn’t tell you where it came from.

(One that I know by heart, for some reason.)

I’ve always thought that the greatest thing about Shakespeare was that he was writing plays for popular consumption. He wasn’t tortuously laboring over and rewriting every sentence over and over again, hoping to impress a bunch of scholars or critics. He was just really into oratory and using pure language to create a sense of character for the players that wasn’t a common practice yet. That said, if you only read the plays, it’s easy to overlook the theatrics and amusement of the narratives, not to mention the lower-level humor of the comedies directed to the front row.

He also, over and over and over again, managed to capture the complexity of the human condition. I can’t give you any kind of summary of Caliban and Prospero’s relationship, but it rings true–this is a complicated way that two people, vastly unequal and neither simply good or simply evil–might interact. Or Juliet: he got exactly right the way youth can be so, so brave and so, so stupid at the same time, and how that is both a tragedy and a source of hope. Or Shylock: a character you can’t help but feel sympathy for, but would never, ever want to get stuck in an elevator with. The breathtaking variety of characters, and the way every single one of them rings true, and unique, is unequaled by any other English writer.

Just as he had a gift for creating new characters that you never saw before but recognize instantly, he also had a gift for inventing new words and phrases that you never heard before but understand instantly. No one else has done that sort of wordsmithing.

I don’t have a lot of Shakespeare committed to memory, which I regret. If I lived in a Matrix style universe it’s one of the first apps I’d have uploaded (along with Spanish and which frigging jumper cable to put on first/take off last) would be the full text of most of Shakespeare’s plays. Whenever I see a production I find myself mentally running around with a butterfly net trying to catch so many of his phrases because you know exactly what he is saying (moreso seeing a production than reading it- he’s really not meant to be read) but he says it so beautifully, yet it slips through the fingers like moonshine. His words are spoken music.

Whether he’s the best ever or not is above my pay grade to answer and way too subjective, and certainly I enjoy a good episode of Big Bang Theory or an occasional Stephen King novel as well, but he always calls you back. Age cannot wither him, nor custom stale his infinite variety. Other writers cloy the appetites they feed, but he makes hungry where most he satisfies.

Most non-English-speaking countries also have a great admiration of Shakespeare, even in translation, so it’s not just the language. The characters, emotions, and insights into human nature make it universal.

… but so much of what he writes is cliche … ::: duck :::

I think your post kind of answered the question, the flowering of English and all that, appealing to a wide swath of society, having breadth to his work. So part accident of history, part the need of people to have legends and standards by which others are measured, and part (the biggest part) he was really f’in’ good.

I’d include Charlie Chaplin in those analogs from other disciplines.

A lot of what Shakespeare wrote was nothing special. Just regular ‘hack’ writing about well-known themes to please the crowds and earn some money. The thing is, when he is good, he’s very good indeed, and hard to beat.

There’s lots to find and admire in his work. The characterisation, the imagery, the richness and diversity of language, the depiction of the human condition, the power of the poetry, the handling of the emotional life of the characters… at his best, Shakespeare does very well in all these departments, and is therefore deservedly studied and applauded.

We also happen to have a very large collection of his works, in reasonably reliable form. This large body of work lends itself very well to the needs of the academic world, and gives Literature bods a lot to study and analyse.

There is no other pre-20th century writer of whom all the same things can be said. Hence his pre-eminent reputation.

I wasn’t going to mention it, but he did seem to pretty much steal the plot of West Side Story and drop it into Italy with an unnecessary and unrealistic plot twist (“You took a ruffie from a priest!”).

I think it is a mixture of various qualities but the most important is his accessibility and popularity to a wide variety of audiences and in a wide range of stories.

a. the language - Chaucer wrote in Middle English, Dante wrote in Italian, etc. With a larger historical view, it may seem trite to suggest that English is the dominant language but if you consider that England and then the United States have been the world “leaders” for the past few hundred years, an English author being considered the “best” makes sense.

b. skill at comedy and drama equally.

c. mass appeal - I think today Shakespeare would be considered high art, but like a lot of great artists (Dickens, Hitchcock, The Beatles, etc.), he was first appreciated as a producer of just damn popular and catchy material before he was considered high art.

d. the mixture of the high and low characters - for the longest time, drama was considered to be contained within the realm of Gods and kings. Shakespeare wrote plenty of that, but he also wrote plays about the common man or woman. Where there’s Lear, there’s the Fool who speaks more truth. Where there’s Prince Harry, there’s Falstaff with the sharper wit and keener eye.

e. keen awareness of social issues - Othello discusses race, Merchant of Venice addresses anti-semitism, many of his comedies (and dramas) are about the role of women in society, The Tempest has a somewhat anti-colonialism message, Henry V is about courage in war and overreaching as a monarch at the same time, and certainly you have the gamut of ‘common’ emotions like greed, jealousy, guilt, hatred, loyalty, and of course love, covered in almost all of the plays.

f. his Keatsian (I made that up) “negative sensibility” - Shakespeare had a remarkable ability to be able to write fully developed characters from a range of backgrounds, sexes, ages, classes, etc and he did across such a range of plots and genres. So many authors, even great authors, are one-note and will forever be famous for their limited contribution. Richard Wright wrote exclusively of the institutionalized racism against African Americans and how it would eventually come back to bite America in the ass. Almost everything he wrote was in this one vein. John Milton wrote a lot but his best known works will always be about the relationship between humankind, the responsibility of leaders to servants and vice versa, education, and obligation to our fellow man. But I can’t think of anyone (Dickens? of course I haven’t read nearly enough for such a sweeping judgment) who could write a variety of characters across a broad range of issues and still have the characters feel three-dimensional and complete without getting pigeon-holed easily into a slot in the canon as “the race writer” or “the religious epiphany writer” (O’Connor) or “the Southern aristocratic guilt writer” (Faulkner) or etc.

Just a random assortment of things in Shakespeare’s corner.

Reading Hamlet (or seeing a production) it is astonishing just how many commonly known and used quotations come from it, in either direct or bastardized form. The Bard was, of course, equally adept at comedy and tragedy, and was no slouch when it came to altering the historical record to suit dramatic ends. In modern terms, he’d be a David Lean or Steven Spielberg; capable of both broad strokes and nuanced sensibility. Still, he’s second best compared to Alexander Pushkin.


Indeed, there is a Hungarian translation of Shakepeare by one of the preeminent poets in that language which is very famous. It is commonly studied by Hungarian students – my father, for example.


You’ve been Tolstoy-ized into sanity…

BTW - this little essay has everything you need to understand the art of novel.

I don’t think his work was that great. It’s the old was he great because his works lasted? I doubt this, by this criteria, “Gilligan’s Island,” and the “Brady Bunch” would rank among the best sitcoms. Popular does not equal great.

But as usual the Family Circus has already covered this topic