Monday, September 24, 2012

Why Shakespeare?
by Ruby Jand

“Shakespeare is a black woman.”
I came across these words written by Maya Angelou in Peter Erikson's Rewriting Shakespeare Rewriting Ourselves and it plinged the spot in my brain that constantly whispers the question, “Why Shakespeare?” Why is this claim made by a black woman? Why does a representative of the Reagan administration then misuse Angelou's words to try to make us believe that class, gender and ethnicity don't matter? Why is Shakespeare so important?
About a year ago I started my blog Shakespeare Calling and the question I asked in my introduction was, “What's so great about Shakespeare?” Today, after seventeen play analyses and a number of book reviews, I'm still not really any closer to an answer. The “Monday Reports” with their lists of “Shakespeare Sightings” only make the question more mysterious. Why is Shakespeare referred to in so many novels, films, newspaper articles and pop songs – so casually, assuming everyone recognizes the source? And why do so many, in fact, recognize the source? Why are these plays, written within a time span of less than twenty years four hundred years ago, still performed and filmed all over the world in all kinds of languages?
Some answers reveal themselves but how good are they?
  • Shakespeare understood, maybe loved or at least tolerated every aspect of all humans from all walks of life.
    • Not really true but many aspects. But that's what all great authors do. No others have not only survived for four centuries but are still thriving in all cultural arenas.
  • England was emerging as a world power when Shakespeare was writing and it soon dominated the globe politically and economically until the 20th century. The language still does.
    • Well, yes. But an awful lot of literature has been written in English since then. Why is Shakespeare the undisputed champion?
  • The language! Shakespeare was a language genius and half of everything we say is a quote or a word invented by Shakespeare.
    • Again, yes indeed. But...half of what he wrote is incomprehensible to normal English speakers today. And how can Shakespeare be so appreciated in translation if his language is so important? The Swedish productions I've seen, for example, lose the brilliant English and they're still amazing.
  • He's a genius of high drama and comedy.
    • Sort of. But his stories are often simple to the point of silliness and he swiped most of them from other people.
There are undoubtedly a dozen more answers but the questions remain:
  1. Why has Shakespeare survived all the recent attacks – many of them justifiable – on the English language canon which have tried to break the absolute dominance of dead white men, and succeeded to a certain extent?
  2. Having not only survived but thrived, why does Shakespeare remain the absolute yardstick by which literature is measured?
  3. Why do we want to identify ourselves with Shakespeare and make everything he wrote fit into our worldview? I'm not trying to simplify Angelou's “Shakespeare was a black woman” or misinterpret it, but the fact remains that even though Shakespeare has been accused of racism, antisemitism, misogynism and classism, Bardolators now include – together with conservatives, stuffy old schoolmarms, cultural snobs, Christians of various flavors, and Ivy League elitists of old – feminists, blacks, Jews, Marxists and just about everybody else you can think of. And we all say, “Shakespeare was one of us!” Why?!?

I don't know. I've thought and thought, analyzed and read and reread and I can't figure it out. To quote Geoffrey Rush, as Philip Henslowe in “Shakespeare in Love” (Oscar for Best Movie – why?! A movie about a playwright from four hundred years ago?!):
It's a mystery.

August 2012

Posted on Blogging Shakespeare
September 21 2012


  1. Why, indeed? Very thought-provoking post, Ruby, with very wide and deep and serious implications.

    I've wondered a lot why Shakespeare should be so fabulously revered. Indeed, this was one of the reasons why I finally decided to actually read something by the old Will: he is everywhere, everybody is referring to him constantly. (Well, there were other factors: Verdi's "Otello", W. H. Auden, but that's another story.)

    I must say that my knowledge is still very limited. I have read only about ten of the plays, they all will need a good deal of re-reading to grasp, if not all, at least most of what is there.

    Actually, so far I am under the impression that Shakespeare is underrated. This is a scandalous claim, I know. My main reason is exactly stuff like this "Shakespeare was a black woman". This wasn't a joke, was it? In other words, using Shakespeare as a scapegoat or as a convenient peg to hang one's own fantasies is just plain wrong. And that's precisely what many, far too many readers and writers do. Meanwhile, the essence of the Bard remains under-explored. Maybe this opinion of mine will change when I read books about Shakespeare. We'll see.

    This of course raises the fundamental problem of art appreciation. Very thorny, this one. To paraphrase musicologist Deryck Cooke, the question is not what meaning we can attach to Shakespeare, but what Shakespeare himself meant. Deryck spoke of Wagner's "Ring" but I think the point is valid for all art and how we experience it. For example, Deryck showed, quite convincingly, that Donnington's Jungian "interpretation" is simply nonsense. Yet lots of people take this junk seriously.

    This is my answer to Question No. 3 in your post. We shouldn't do that to Shakespeare. Nor, for that matter, should we compare him with other writers. The result of this are misguided reviews like this one:

    The blue flag is mine and I'm proud of it. This is a review that looks extraordinarily perceptive - until one actually comes to think a little about it. The only valid point is that Shakespeare is "not the be-all and end-all of writing". Of course he isn't. There's no such thing. No writer deserves to be humiliated with such idiotic praise. If he could see this "be-all and end-all" status, Shakespeare would have laughed his head off.

    I think we should regard every writer as an end in his/herself. If we must compare, let us compare his/her oeuvre to the human condition as we know it, how it expresses the essence of this condition, how it helps us to gain deeper understanding of it. But that's a far more difficult comparison, is it not? And it's terribly easy to be turned into, to quote Deryck Cooke again, "a kind of private transcendental self-intoxication with words". Deryck spoke of music criticism, but his point is again universal.

    The whole comparison issue boils down to this: if we compare A to B, what makes B worthy of being an yardstick? The same with comparing everything to Shakespeare: we first need to determine why on earth is he the ultimate yardstick, if indeed such yardstick is possible to exist? As I see it, the only way to at least try to answer this question is to estimate Shakespeare's contribution to our understanding of human nature, and that's horribly difficult because of the stupendous hype that surrounds his name. In 1951 Harold Goddard wrote that he thought we were closer to the beginning than to the end of our understanding of Shakespeare. Has this changed since? I don't know.

  2. But back to your original question. Why Shakespeare?

    I believe the first of your reasons is by far the most important one. I would go as far as to claim that Shakespeare did have - must have had - great understanding of, if not sympathy with, even the most horrible examples of human nature. How else would he have created Iago or Richard? It's easy to dismiss them as villains and evil and all these intellectually pusillanimous descriptions. But can you resist them? No matter how outraged people may be by these characters, they are thoroughly fascinated, indeed spellbound, by them.

    True, all great writers do that, all of them offer us incomparable characters of great variety and vividness. There is no reason why Shakespeare should be singled out. And yet - and yet his range is quite extraordinary. How could the same men create Othello and Iago, Lear and Richard, Macbeth and Hamlet, is quite beyond me. As Somerset Maugham once put it:

    The writer does not feel with; he feels in. It is not sympathy that he has, that too often results in sentimentality; he has what the psychologists call empathy. It is because Shakespeare had this to so great a degree that he was at once the most living and the least sentimental of authors.

    The other three reasons we may speedily dispense of. The language is mesmerising, certainly. But it is only a tool, a means towards an end. If the writer has nothing to say, no amount of verbal brilliance would save him. He is done. England as a world power is not serious: first, as you say, a good deal has been written in English since, and second, Shakespeare thrives very well in translation. Last and least, the plots are, of course, by far the least important part of his genius. That's why I hated the Lambs and their ridiculous "Tales from Shakespeare". Of course he is a very clever dramatist, far cleverer than many give him credit, but, again, there have been many equally smart ones since.

    In the end, the mystery remains. The more time passes, the more difficult it becomes to evaluate Shakespeare with a sober head, simply because the hype accumulates. In a way, his great genius is his great curse. Those characters he created are so alive and multifarious, so complex and elusive, that everybody thinks he or she can make a case of Shakespeare pro- or contra- anything.

    I'm afraid this turned out much more long-winded and confused than I intended. I'm sorry. Just my two cents.

    1. A very interesting two cents, I must say. I guess this is a question that will continue to be discussed whenever people try to figure out what’s so great about the old guy.

  3. Why Shakespeare? Harold Bloom has based his writings on Shakespeare on the thought expressed in the title of his book "The Invention of the Human" and his introduction argues for the standpoint. If an alien from a different solar system asked what it's like to be a human I would say, "See, read and study Shakespeare for a few years. It's not an easy project but humans are not simple beings."