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?