"Shakespeare never had six lines together without a fault. Perhaps you may find seven, but this does not refute my general assertion."
- Dr. Samuel Johnson
“It must be own’d’, that with all these great excellencies, he has almost as great defects; and that as he has certainly written better, so he has perhaps written worse, than any other”.
- Alexander Pope
‘His is a fine but untutored nature: he has neither regularity, nor propriety, nor art: in the midst of his sublimity he sometimes descends to grossness, and in the most impressive scenes to
buffoonery: his tragedy is chaos, illuminated by a hundred shafts of light”.
“Would he had blotted a thousand lines.”
- Ben Jonson
“[Shakespeare and the other Elizabethans] ne’er knew the laws of heroick or dramatick poesy, nor -- faith -- to write true English neighter. [Shakespeare] is many times flat and insipid, his comic wit degenerating into clenches and his serious swelling into bombast.”
- John Dryden
Those lips that Love's own hand did make
Breathed forth the sound that said 'I hate,'
To me that languish'd for her sake:
But when she saw my woeful state,
Straight in her heart did mercy come,
Chiding that tongue that ever sweet
Was used in giving gentle doom,
And taught it thus anew to greet:
'I hate' she alter'd with an end,
That follow'd it as gentle day
Doth follow night, who like a fiend
From heaven to hell is flown away;
'I hate' from hate away she threw,
And saved my life, saying -- 'not you.'
- Sonnet 145
Thanks to Professor Taylor’s poetry class during my freshman year, the example of Sonnet 145 stands out in my mind as especially bad Shakespeare. Professor Taylor told us not to worry about writing bad poetry, because even Shakespeare could write verse of incredible badness. He was absolutely right - that sonnet sucks. Nobody, not even anybody in love, ever died a thousand deaths after hearing the person they love saying ‘I hate’ in the instant before wondering if she was about to say ‘you.’ And instead of her hating someone else, it’s just ‘not you.’ This is pure sentimental sop. I don’t doubt it made a thousand corseted ladies of Jane Austen’s generation swoon, but it’s still bad poetry.
In the Age of the Internet, three thousand years of literature seems in danger of death by neglect. Shakespeare is the only literary writer of eminence in the last three thousand years whose survival through it seems completely guaranteed, and in our demotic, egalitarian age, we think of Shakespeare as the pinnacle of literary refinement. But Shakespeare was considered anything but refined for most of the last 450 years. Even those writers who loved him acknowledged his faults. Many of them particularly loved him for his faults. His promotion to ‘Greatest… Writer… Ever...’ was done by critics of the German romantic movement like Goethe and Schiller, Schlegel and Tieck and Herder, and they loved him particularly for his barbarism and his lack of artifice - precisely the qualities which, in today's public imagination, he lacks.
The fundamental problem of Shakespeare in our day is absurdly simple: he’s overexposed. Anyone with even a modicum of aesthetic curiosity knows his plays so well that we can never be surprised by them, and so the wider public views them as effete and pretentious. If you were to compare Shakespeare to classical music, Shakespeare would be a vast plurality of ‘classical’ literature personified. The power he has over literature and theater is the power of Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Gluck, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Rossini, Schubert, Chopin, Schumann, Verdi, and Brahms combined into one figure. Somehow, even in our amnesiac age, Shakespeare is still valued as one of the greatest cultural touchstones. Chekhov and Moliere don’t even have a chance in the theater against Hamlet and Midsummer, Don Quixote, Pantegruel, and Montaigne don’t have a chance against Malvolio, Falstaff, and Hamlet. But such is his hold over the public’s imagination that surely a generation will one day rise up and say that Shakespeare holds a tyranny over us just as people used to say that classical music and Classical education once did. Furthermore, most contemporary actors sound hopelessly incompetent when speaking Shakespearean verse, and if you can’t make the verse sound natural, the plays fall flat as a pancake. Shakespeare is clearly dying the same death as most Western Art, even if his death is slower. And once he’s dead to the public, will any of the Western Tradition still live for people?
The Shakespeare skeptics are manifold and well known, most famous among them being: Dryden, Pepys, Pope, Voltaire, Darwin, Tolstoy, Wittgenstein, Shaw, T.S. Eliot, Tolkien, George Steiner. Some of them liked Shakespeare with reservations, many of them were legitimate. Others hated him. Tolstoy positively loathed him - he saw in Shakespeare, correctly, a base exploitativeness and lack of moral vision, with what he perceived as unbearable tedium in their place. He was particularly savage about King Lear. He regarded the character development as “artificial,” the plot “wholly unbelievable”, and the death scenes “absurd.” Ironically, four years after he wrote about King Lear, Tolstoy’s final act, spent as an 82-year-old man freezing to death in a train station after leaving his family in disgust, was an uncannily similar end to the famous King he so virulently dismissed.
Voltaire liked Shakespeare, at least when the former was a young man, but constantly bemoaned his ‘barbarism.’ It’s true that Shakespeare emits gales of violence as the sea does waves, and uses his violence as a crutch so that we don’t have to consider deeper issues, but it’s better to accept melodramatic stage violence than to indulge real-life repression. Shakespeare’s fare is clearly unfit for the artifices of Rococo court life, and the artifices of the French court were repressive enough that it caused the entire continent to erupt in unprecedented violence a mere decade after Voltaire’s passing.
Bernard Shaw agreed aboiut the base exploitativeness, and even if Shaw was wrong about Shakespeare, he made his point well.
“Search [in Shakespeare] for statesmanship, or even citizenship, or any sense of the commonwealth, material or spiritual, and you will not find the making of a decent vestryman or curate in the whole horde. As to faith, hope, courage, conviction, or any of the true heroic qualities, you find nothing but death made sensational, despair made stage-sublime, sex made romantic, and barrenness covered up by sentimentality and the mechanical lilt of blank verse.”
Shaw was a realist who had nothing but contempt for the irrational, considering it a vestige of a bygone era (imagine the invective he’d pour on Game of Thrones…). But Shaw’s own life was an eloquent testament to the limits of rationality. He was as fierce a political polemicist as he was effective a playwright, and unlike many of his plays, he was distinctively idiotic as a newspaper columnist. He called the smallpox vaccination ‘a peculiarly filthy piece of witchcraft,’ he was a fierce supporter of Stalin and repeatedly called reports of the Soviet famine ‘slanderous,’ he endorsed eugenic projects, and loudly advocated for the exoneration of Nazi War Criminals. Without the humility which irrational speculation provides, these are the types of conclusions toward which pure rationalism leads us.
Some people call Shakespeare’s moral autism ‘cosmic artistry.’ They say that Shakespeare exists beyond worldly concerns, and perhaps they’re right. But we can’t deny that Shakespeare lacks the quality that makes so many other great artists great - a moral sense. Shakespeare is what Ferdinand Schiller would call a ‘naive’ poet, who derives his gift purely from nature and practices his art without any concern for what happens in the world around him. More ‘sentimental’ contemporaries of Shakespeare, who gained their artistic strength from observing the affairs of the wider world, met with terrible fates. Ben Jonson, Shakespeare’s great rival as a comic playwright, was tortured. Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare’s great rival as a tragic playwright, was murdered. Shakespeare clearly commented upon world events, but did it so abstractly that no reader or audience member of his time could swear that the situation in his plays were analagous. How can anyone read Hamlet or King Lear and not see the elderly Queen Elizabeth in her declining years. How can anybody read King Lear or Macb*th and not see the specter of the Scottish King James VI; soon to inherit England’s throne and thought by many to have obtained it through corrupt means? How can any audience member of his time see The Tempest and not think of the first colonial settlers leaving for the New World.
But there’s little evidence that Shakespeare was issuing a critique of world events, even an allegorical one. Rather, he was shrewdly playing upon the fears and imaginations of his public as any master showman would, presenting an England and Scotland yet again torn apart by war, or presenting an entirely new world populated by all the magical beings which Francis Bacon’s science was disproving within their own.
Indeed, to me, Shakespeare is at his best when he preserves the magic and mystery of the universe. In the high tragedies, his psychological insight is so keen that it’s almost clinical. The ferociousness of the characters are almost matched by their need to let us know every nuance of their thought. It is an unbelievable triumph of characterization but also its own worst defect, couching the excitement of the melodrama within pedanticism, crudely juxtaposing a scene of high tragedy with a scene with a scene of low comedy. In life, comedy and tragedy intermingle from the angle of viewpoint, and there are some artists: Mozart, Chekhov, Jean Renoir, Rembrandt, Stephen Sondheim, Kafka, who can blur the distance between comedy and tragedy with effortless ambiguity - every action can seem equally funny and sad. Compared to them, Shakespeare can be downright clumsy, because Shakespeare does not seek to create characters to whom we can relate. His characters may be ‘realer than us,’ but they are not lifelike.
He is, at heart, a completely unspoiled nature. His real identity has to be William Shakespeare, because no nobleman could write with Shakespeare’s lack of artifice. Only a man hugely acquainted with nature could write A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Twelfth Night. Only a man acquainted with earthy lowlives could write the Falstaff plays. Only a man well acquainted with uneasy access to sex could write Romeo and Juliet or As You Like It. And only a man well-acquainted with peasant superstition could have written Macb*th (surely his most effective tragedy) and The Tempest.
The German Romantics were right, Shakespeare’s greatest gift was for his portrayal of nature and the irrational. His greatest psychological portrait is, in fact, in one of his last and slightly less known plays - The Winter’s Tale. Far more than Hamlet or Iago, Leontes is a true portrait of human beings - working themselves up into a fury over completely irrational fears which they acquired for completely irrational reasons. It was as though Shakespeare finally gave up in trying to explain human behavior, and showed us in all our irrational, messy glory. Shakespeare’s irrationality, not his rationalism, was his greatest gift. If we can compare him to a contemporary figure, it would not be a refined artist like Stephen Sondheim or Martin Scorsese or Ben Jonson or Christopher Marlowe, it would be to an impeccable showman whose theatrical magic always plays to the gallery even as he tries (and often fails) to please the highbrow critics. It would be Steven Spielberg. Like Spielberg, Shakespeare dispenses of twenty scenes in the time it takes most playwrights and directors to get through a single scene. Like Spielberg, Shakespeare has an uncanny eye for melodrama and the cosmically irrational while more fastidious playwrights and filmmakers are hung up on the particularities of their characters’ behavior. Like Spielberg, Shakespeare raised the technique of his particular craft, be it theatrical language or cinematic visuals, to its absolute zenith. Like Spielberg, Shakespeare has an odd double taste for both excessive violence and excessive sentimentality. Like Spielberg, Shakespeare had little taste for polemic or social critique and practiced his art as a master showman. Like Spielberg, Shakespeare excelled in nearly every genre to which he put his hand. Like Spielberg, Shakespeare is endlessly discussed, but ultimately unknowable, seeming to have no personality outside of his work. And like Spielberg, Shakespeare was far better loved as an entertainer than respected as an artist in his own day. Who knows what Spielberg’s reputation may be in two-hundred years time (or twenty..)? But it’s entirely possible that critics living in a less ironic age will find in Spielberg a cosmic artist for all-time - certainly he’s already the most influential artist of our day, and the artist whose absolute genius is agreed upon by the largest number of audience members.
Is Shakespeare the ‘Greatest… Writer… Ever…’? Well..., no. He’s certainly in the first rank, but is there truly justification for calling him a greater writer than Chaucer, or Chekhov, or Moliere, or Cervantes, or Montaigne, or Tacitus, or Kafka, or Ovid, or Homer, or Tolstoy, or Rabelais, or Joyce, or Voltaire, or Aristophanes, or Turgenev, or Pushkin, or Yeats, or whoever wrote certain books of the Bible, or surely many others whom I’ve either not yet read or don’t yet see them for the proper value? How can you possibly rank giants like these? Surely there isn’t such a thing as the ‘Greatest’ in Art. You can’t quantify artistic greatness, you can only qualify it and say ‘this is why it’s great.’ In Shakespeare’s case, he surely designed the greatest linguistic tapestry I’ve ever read, and put it in the service of creating characters of stupendous interior life, placed in scenarios of unbearable excitement, juxtaposing pathos with humor as only a master showman could. Even if he was too bombastic and melodramatic, even if he padded his plays with boring passages, even if he’s over-exposed, even if he gravitates too readily to emotional extremes, even if his fans obsess over him to the point of a cult, even if his plays aren’t particularly relatable, even if he wrote much clearly bigoted material, even if he mistakened psychological insight for moral vision, even if he so often exploited our baser instincts, we should forgive him all his gaucheries. Like we would any greatly valued friend, we forgive Shakespeare his flaws and celebrate his strengths, because a person of such cosmic value should be appreciated for exactly who he is.