During the summer between my high school graduation and my first semester of undergraduate studies, I found myself discussing Shakespeare with a friend. Yes, I was a complete nerd at eighteen. Armed with precious few ideas, and even less experience, I was shocked – shaken to my core! – to hear her say, ever so casually, “you know, he’s really not that good.”
Of course, I had to defend the reputation of the man who represented the best of what the English language had to offer. I don’t remember what exactly I said to her, but I do remember feeling completely inadequate to the task at hand. What exactly made Shakespeare “great”? Why did his plays and poems rank among the best ever produced? Surely the answer should have been obvious . . .
Since then, I’ve learned more about what makes Shakespeare “Shakespeare.” I’ve read many of his plays and all 154 of his sonnets. I’ve written papers on King Lear, Hamlet, Measure for Measure , A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Othello, and Titus Andronicus; I even analyzed a few of these plays for my dissertation. I’ve taught and graded essays on Macbeth, The Merchant of Venice, and Sonnet 116. Besides the primary texts themselves, I’ve read a ridiculous amount of Shakespeare criticism, both popular and academic.
So what would I say to my friend if we had that same conversation today?
“You’re right, he’s overrated.”
Part of me has come to outright hate Shakespeare. By this, I don’t mean I hate William Shakespeare, the guy, the Englishman born circa 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon and who died in 1616 after a successful career as an actor, stage manager, and playwright. The person I hate doesn’t technically exist – he’s a mythical creature that sprang up around Shakespeare’s memory and work, an ideological fetish known as “The Bard.”
The transformation of William Shakespeare into “The Bard,” was a complex, centuries-long process that began in the later 17th-century. To fully understand it you have to consider several factors, including: the sudden reopening of the English theaters in 1660, after two decades of closure; the collusion of English nationalism with the solidification of an “English” canon of literature; the role of famous actors and stage managers such as Thomas Betterton and David Garrick; and several other cultural and social factors that I don’t have time to get into here.
Suffice it to say that, by the 19th century, “The Bard” was a wide-spread literary phenomenon Who propped up English culture’s idea of what constituted literary greatness, a slippery, ever-changing, and never-innocent category. If you’re interested in this topic, and want to learn more, I’d suggest starting with Jack Lynch’s Becoming Shakespeare: The Unlikely Afterlife That Turned a Provincial Playwright into the Bard.
The “Shakespeare” that we all think we’re supposed to appreciate, who I’ll refer to hereafter as The Bard, is an ideological formation. Much like myth, ideology refers to how the symbolic environments that we live in affect how we perceive and react to “real” phenomena.
The author’s name serves to characterize a certain mode of being of discourse: the fact that the discourse has an author’s name, that one can say ‘this was written by so-and-so’ or ‘so-and-so is its author,’ shows that this discourse is not ordinary everyday speech that merely comes and goes, not something that is immediately consumable. On the contrary, it is a speech that must be received in a certain mode and that, in a given culture, must receive a certain status.Michel Foucault, from “What Is an Author?”
“The Bard” hovers over the text of, say, Twelfth Night and guides us to a certain, often predetermined reading of Shakespeare’s play. The point is no longer understanding or enjoying the play, so much as it is to recognize what (imaginary) quality makes it an example of “The Bard’s” sublimity or “greatness.” If literary criticism is at it’s worst when it functions as a velvet rope, then “The Bard” is one of the criteria by which the bouncers divide texts and readers along an axis of snobbery and exclusion.
The Circular Theology of Bard-ism
The “preeminent critic of our generation,” Harold Bloom, loved The Bard. If ever there was a worshipper in the Church of the Bard, it was the man who wrote Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. Despite having no original ideas since the 1970s, Bloom became the high priest of Literature from his overpaid perch at Yale, where he built his reputation by uttering circular cliches, which his graduate students would then cobble together into a book. Bloom’s central claim in Shakespeare: Invention of Human is pure Bard-ism: Shakespeare alone invented our conception of humanity.
How does Bloom prove such an ambitious thesis? By reading his favorite works of Shakespeare and uttering vague, yet scholastic-sounding tidbits such as this: “Rosalind is unique in Shakespeare, perhaps because it is so difficult to achieve a perspective upon her that she herself does not anticipate and share,” or “The Nurse and Mercutio [from Romeo and Juliet], both of them audience favorites, are nevertheless bas news, in different but complementary ways.” Oh, really? You couldn’t say these exact same things about any other characters in English literature? Restoration drama, the Victorian novel, and many of Shakespeare’s own contemporaries would like a word. . . .
What doesn’t happen in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human is actual research, argumentation, or intellectual work in general. This book is a religious text in which Bloom positions himself as the medium through which the Bard shall communicate opaque and esoteric mysteries.
When Bloom and critics like him say things like, “reading Shakespeare’s plays, you learn to mediate upon what is left out. That is one of the many advantages that a reader has over a theatergoer in regard to Shakespeare,” it’s as though Bloom is trying to convince himself that reading Shakespeare – his method of reading The Bard, as opposed to Shakespeare the guy, is the “correct” way to experience, say, Hamlet or Henry IV, Part 1. The rest of us just have to uncritically accept these well-phrased brain farts.
A less pretentious, and somewhat more coherent, example of Bard-ism is Michael Mack’s “Why Read Shakespeare?” This pedagogical essay, addressed to Mack’s students, is one of the most Googled texts about Shakespeare. Full disclosure: I totally support any efforts by Mack, or any other scholar, to convince students that they should read texts that aren’t easily accessible, or which they otherwise wouldn’t read outside of a college setting.
But he shouldn’t rely on cliches like this: “Literature teaches you about life, and the better you understand literature, the better you understand life. It is also true, though, that the more you know about life, the better equipped you are to understand what you find in literature. This two-way mirroring means that learning about literature and learning about life go hand-in-hand. And it means that finding beauty and meaning in Shakespeare is a sort of proving ground for finding beauty and meaning in life.”
You can’t argue against that. Then again, you can’t really argue for it. This is like saying “vanilla is the best flavor of ice cream.” You may genuinely feel this way. But this statement is too vague to have any kind of stable truth value. You can’t prove it or disprove it. It’s just, like, your opinion, man.
These type of statements create a sort of circular theology: the statements must be true, because “The Bard” is clearly the greatest writer to ever have put quill to parchment. How do we know that “The Bard” is so great? Well, just look at all the effusive, wise-sounding things that very educated and well-read people say about him. Why do they say such things? Well that’s obvious, you see, the Bard is the greatest author to have ever lived . . . Don’t question, just read and worship.
The emphasis on Shakespeare in today’s world of higher education and criticism is understandable: his corpus is a sublime achievement . . . Yet to the extent that the current canonization of Shakespeare has eclipsed his fellow Renaissance dramatists, an opportunity is being neglected. For if Shakespeare was incomparable, he also had the good fortune to write in an age and for a theater that fostered astonishing, and astonishingly varied work.Here we see the editors of the Norton Anthology of Renaissance Drama simultaneously preach, and implicitly expose, Bard-ism (emphasis mine).
Admittedly, Mack’s essay was written for incoming undergraduates, not a peer-reviewed journal or major publication. But it reveals something about the very people who are supposed to be critical, learned readers – that they too fall into Bard idolatry, even if they should know better.
At the 2018 annual meeting of The American Society of Eighteenth Century Studies (ASECS), I attended a panel on Restoration drama. One of speakers gave a presentation on Restoration reboots of MacBeth, specifically Sir William D’Avenant’s 1674 version of Shakespeare’s tragedy. She argued that, in the context of Restoration theater, the D’Avenant version was a technical and commercial improvement over Shakespeare’s original. What stays with me the most is a half-joking comment she made toward the end of her talk: “I couldn’t say this at a Shakespeare conference. They’d crucify me.”
How to Read Shakespeare, And Everything Else, Instead of the Bard
If the Bard is an ideological function built on cliches, then what about Shakespeare, the guy? Is his work worth reading? You’re darn-tootin’ it is!
Shakespeare’s plays can resonate powerfully with modern readers. Julius Caesar caused an uproar in 2017 when it became a critique of the Trump administration. Shylock’s “hath not a Jew eyes” speech in The Merchant of Venice is one of the most insightful, succinct critiques of prejudice ever written. Titus Andronicus, usually seen as the problem child of Shakespeare’s corpus, is just bloody good fun, on par with anything Game of Thrones has to offer (unlike the creators of Game of Thrones, Shakespeare the guy bothered to give Titus Andronicus a good ending).
I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?The most recognizable part of Shylock’s cutting monologue from The Merchant of Venice, Act III, scene i.
But Shakespeare becomes problematic when he starts to crowd out other options that, in the eyes of Bard zealots, could never add up to that ineffable (and undefinable, and ultimately incomprehensible) “greatness” that the Bard can offer us mere mortals. This was part of the panic surrounding the Harry Potter crazy of the early 2000s. I remember hearing a concern that, yes, Harry Potter gets children to read, but what if they never graduate to the classics? Fie and alack!!!!! How horrible! And yes, Shakespeare was a name that came up as an example of what these poor children might miss.
The Harry Potter example revealed how a certain Bard-inspired prejudice works. Readers are supposed to move through a series of ever “greater” works until they come to read the “correct” texts. Of, course, it’s not just Bard-ites who use this strategy – it’s very common among snobs. The Shining or The Hunger Games is only worth reading as a step toward Hamlet. Never mind the fact that Stephen King or Suzanne Collins might speak to them in ways that Shakespeare or Dante or Milton just can’t. Any enjoyment or fulfillment readers get from such trash is seen as a kind of youthful mistake, or temporary detour.
In our public schools, we try to shove Shakespeare down students’s throats, as though forcing them to read through Hamlet will somehow automatically make them appreciate literary “greatness.” For many students, the answer to “why should we read Shakespeare” or “why do we still study Shakespeare today” often amounts to a version of “well, because.” No wonder so many of them couldn’t care less about the topic.
The point I’m trying to make here isn’t “don’t read Shakespeare,” or any kind of admonition to relegate him to the trash file of history. Instead, I’d say let’s “decenter” him and other literary deities so that we can enjoy other writers without feeling like we’re missing the things we’re “supposed” to read. Let’s take off the blinders that we put on when we try to read (worship) The Bard.
Yes, the works of Shakespeare, the guy who lived and wrote in Renaissance England, can teach us things about ourselves and our world that we might not otherwise learn. But, then again, so can works by other Dead White Males such as John Milton and Alexander Pope. So can texts by Dead White Women, such as Jane Austen (who everyone pretends to love) and Margaret Cavendish (who everyone, sadly, forgets about).
We can learn things from Fredrick Douglas, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison about the horrors of American slavery and its legacy that we can’t learn from The Dead White People. Margaret Atwood can scare the shit out of us with her socially conscious depictions of dystopia, and Bill Bryson can make us laugh more than any other author listed in this entire essay. J.K. Rowling, for all her recent transphobia (not excusing it), gave countless children a magical escape that, so far, hasn’t been replicated by anyone else.
Let’s read Shakespeare, but let’s also tell the Bard to fuck off, please, and let me finish 50 Shades of Grey in peace.