Why study Shakespeare?

I'm not a complete Shakespeare nut. I don't argue that he's the greatest writer ever to have lived (that spot is reserved for Tolstoy; I haven't decided on the best playwright, but my favourite is most definitely Anouilh, and my favourite poet is Dylan Thomas), and neither do I believe he should be studied to the point of excluding almost every other English writer - give us a break and let us read some Spenser or Milton (Paradise Lost can be pretty hard to get through if you're not well versed in the Bible, but it's worth it). However, saying that Shakespeare is bad is on a whole other level of wrongness; Shakespeare's writing is many things to many people, but it's not bad - not even by the standards of other great literature, and not even by the standards of his contemporaries. His works have survived and etched themselves into our literary consciousness; can you say the same for, say, Marlowe? Unless you study English Literature beyond GCSE level or you're just interested in that period, I doubt it.


Why am I writing this? Because of some person's critique of Shakespeare, which will be discussed and riffed below. Said person is entitled to their opinion - and it's a pretty good and well-thought-out opinion which really made me think - but I am also entitled to my rebuttal.


1) Any author who needs an interpreter, explainer, or support from the educational system to keep readers is simply not a vital author. If Shakespeare was a vital author, people would love him without the brainwashing and spoonfeeding of a vast educational system that insists on teaching these tired plays year after year because everyone has done so year after year.

By that definition, "vital authors" are whoever's on the bestseller list or appeal to the reader the most. Considering how fluid this list is, and considering how bad most of the stuff on it is, especially compared to great literature (you don't like Shakespeare? Try Tolstoy or Spenser), if you based an entire curriculum on trashy bestsellers with clich├ęd plots and poor characterisation, our English curriculum would be in even more of a mess than it already is...oh wait, we already do that with some Shakespeare plays, I'll admit that. Some teachers prefer to give classes Shakespeare's earlier or less developed work (Romeo and Juliet does actually fall into this category, as do most of the comedies) in the belief that it's more "accessible" (read: simplistic) to the class. This is an idiotic practice and should be decried, as the smart students will resent the dumbing down and the average-to-stupid students probably won't care about the material in the first place (or be too busy gawking over Leonardo what's-his-name's sheer hawtness(!)/fantasising about Juliet's boobs or something). The thing about literature, about every form of media, is that you need a jumping-off point which a lot of people won't get from the home. This is where the educational system comes in and has to teach things that people's parents should have taught them. I don't agree with what I see as the over-focus on Shakespeare, but he should be taught in the curriculum - just like Spenser, Milton, Donne, Dylan Thomas, Chaucer, whoever wrote Beowulf, medieval poems such as Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Dickens, Austen, George Eliot, T.S. Eliot, and the Bronte sisters, amongst many others, should also be taught in the curriculum.

2) Silly romances and boring dramas driven by improbable plots and vulgar jokes are not great literature. These plays are the work of a man who spent far too much time on scandal and trivial junk to be taken seriously.

Shakespeare's "silly romances" are from his earlier period; they're simply dreadful to read but can be well-executed on the stage. His dramas (well, the tragedies anyway) are most definitely not boring to read, and I have seen productions of King Lear which moved audience members to tears (equally, a bad or boring production totally ruins it). It's worth remembering that Shakespeare wrote for money and to a deadline - hence the flighty material - and also that he ripped off other people's plots and reworked them to make them better; generally, compared to the source material, they are better (if only because some literature back then was piss-poor in terms of characterisation). Furthermore, there are quite a lot of philosophical and moral problems to be considered in Shakespeare's weightier work; for example, there's the conflict between the old and the young in King Lear, which authority should be trusted and why, what difference birth makes, etc.
 
3) The Shakespeare nuts want it both ways and they can't have it either way. On the one hand, they insist that Shakespeare be regarded with the reverence one would give to holy scripture. No one must dare question its greatness, truthfulness, or entertainment value. If you do so, you will be attacked as a philistine. On the other hand, when people believe this nonsense and stay away from Shakespeare because they do not want to be bored, the cultists insist that we are taking it too seriously and that Shakespeare is simply great theatre (when it is nothing of the sort) which can be enjoyed with as much gusto as a rock concert or a stand up comedy act (which is a lie). 

I have to agree that Shakespeare isn't holy scripture and should be criticised and attacked like any other author. (Yes, I do let people criticise my precious Tolstoy. Seeing a pattern yet?) However, Shakespeare is great theatre: I've gone to stage productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Twelfth Night, The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Comedy of Errors, and King Lear. Four out of those five plays are quite sketchy and bad when you read them, but the best productions (go to the Globe and see Shakespeare's plays - they do some of the best stuff around) had me on the edge of my seat, just like any good play, movie, show, musical, concert, etc. would. It's true that a poor production is worse than just reading the play (which really isn't enough, and neither is watching a film adaptation - Shakespeare wrote for the STAGE and you need to see his work on the stage to really give an informed opinion), but the best ones, which get past the language barrier and convey the raw emotions and presence of the characters, bring the plays a life which is often sucked out of them in English lessons. 

4) Any book that needs a glossary for the reader in order to be understandable must either be abandoned as dated or translated into modern English. The Shakespeare nuts wouldn't insist that anyone read Beowulf in Old English or argue that its Old English language is so beautiful that we all must learn what is now a foreign language to us but they do this when it comes to Shakespeare. This is beyond irrational. Imagine being forced to read a viking saga in Old Norse with only a glossary to assist you because the professor happens to love the cadences of Old Norse. This is no different from the nuts who do the same with Shakespeare.

So should science books, computer science books, and other books which require a glossary to explain some of the vocabulary also be abandoned as dated or translated into modern English? I disagree with abandoning literature as dated just because you can't understand it without a dictionary - keeping in mind some basic rules about English at that time, a basic knowledge of "older" English, and an annotated copy, you should be fine. I managed to slog through The Faerie Queene with that and it did me no harm - it did me only good, and it taught me about the basics of literary criticism (and about stonking good stories with layers and layers of meaning). I also disagree with translations, because they tend to lose the meaning present in the original - again, this is essential to understanding a work of literature, which in turn is essential for enjoying it beyond the superficial. Also, the arguments referring to Old English and Old Norse are irrelevant: both are clearly defined about different languages, with different syntax, different inflections, different characters in the writing systems...yeah, they pretty much fit all the criteria for being completely different languages. Shakespearean English is not a foreign language, as (with very few exceptions) syntax and inflections are the same, as is the underlying grammar structure. It shares the same characters (exactly the same, no thorns to worry about) and the only things even slightly different are: 1) the use of "thou" (roughly equivalent to French "tu" or German "du" and it was dying out anyway) 2) associated inflections (like -est after "thou"; again, easy to understand because the rules of English syntax are still largely followed) 3) sometimes a plural verb ends with an -s (I've seen this about three times, and even then only when I was really looking; it's not a major problem, especially if - gasp! - you use your brain to work out what's going on) 4) vocabulary, idioms and connotations (this is the big problem, especially when dealing with the puns that Shakespeare was so fond of, but this is what we have annotations and that arcane thing known as studying for). Finally, anyone wishing to study Old English literature, Old Norse literature, Roman literature, Ancient Greek literature, or any literature in a foreign language, in anything resembling depth, would have to - gasp! - learn the language. A playwright from Stratford-upon-Avon just happened to shape our culture and literature to a ridiculous extent, and this is the language he wrote in. In order to understand his works and how they affect us - this in itself may not be important, but the critical thinking skills necessary for this understanding are important and sadly aren't taught in your average English classroom - you need to learn his language, the connotations and links in this language, how he used it and why it worked.

5) I judge literature on two, and only two, criterion: Is it intriguing? Is it entertaining? I don't give a fig about some academic telling me I need to read something because it is historically important. I doubt that Shakespeare's audience paid to see his plays because they had historical importance and neither will I. Alas, what was entertaining even twenty years ago seems dated and boring today, nevermind what may have been entertaining hundreds of years ago. Old jokes lose their punch, old romances become foolish and insipid with time, old dramas about historical figures become irrelevant and sleep inducing, old concerns no longer concern us. Shakespeare is dated, unfunny, boring. 
And no amount of forcing the issue will change that. Free Shakespeare from the support of the educational system and watch him become forgotten as quickly as last years fashions. And I say, "good riddance" to an author who should have been relegated to the trash heap at least a century ago.


So, at root, we shouldn't study Shakespeare because of arbitrary judgements about what's entertaining and what's not. If someone doesn't want to read Shakespeare, fine, I'm not forcing them. But keeping a person trapped in the clutches of trashy bestseller lists, or actively dissuading them from reading anything from before twenty years ago, is something totally different. I still say Shakespeare should be studied, if only for his impact on culture - which is pretty important, after all: knowing which tropes go where and why, and what uses of language you can and can't get away with, is part of being a good writer - which is a skill you need for life. As for why I put "studied" in quotation marks? That's because I don't see enough actual study, with discussion and debate, and I see too much spoon-feeding of notes. We need more of the former - a lot more - and less of the latter. (Preferably, none at all, but there'll always be some traditionalists and advocates of rote learning.)


And no, I'm not a Shakespeare cultist. If you didn't catch the implicit points I've made before, I'll make it explicit: We study Shakespeare too much and other English writers too little. It's not healthy to focus all the attention onto one writer, when there are many others crying out for attention.


(I am, however, a fan of parentheses and italics.)

Comments