Why I Love Shakespeare: A Response
Just to preface: I think it’s important to make a distinction between not liking a work of literature, not understanding a work of literature and becoming frustrated with it, and not liking the author of a work of literature. These are three distinct issues that can easily be confused. I will try and keep them separate in this piece, but please forgive me if I slip up. Shakespeare has been so intrinsically tied to his works that it is hard, and I realize this. I’ve made the same mistake and I probably will below, but it’s important to separate those ideas.
The other day, Buzzfeed published an essay entitled “Why I Hate Shakespeare” in which Krystie Lee Yandoli outlined her relationship to and disdain for the playwright. I get it. I don’t love to read Shakespeare either. In fact, I hate it. I would much rather watch a play first before then going back to the text and reading it. That strategy is actually what got me through most of my Shakespeare classes in undergrad.
But I think, more than anything, this piece reflects a bigger issue with education in America. I would venture to say that most problems with the Bard of Avon probably stem from how Shakespeare is taught in schools. We talk about the man as if he is on some pedestal (which I would argue he rightfully is, if only for the number of Oxford English Dictionary Entries that cite his name as creator) and kids are scared of him before they read him. It’s like calculus: something you dread because teenage sitcoms talk about how hard it is.
But after reading rereading the piece in its entirety, I would like to directly tackle several of the key issues she raises, as rationally as I can.
1) Plays are meant to be seen not read. Like I said, Shakespeare is taught pretty poorly in many schools and that’s really an education issue that I cannot speak on because I’m not qualified. That being said, I do have a few comments on the relationship with the reading of the text that was outlined in the essay.
Hamlet in middle school? Again, education issue. That’s just not an appropriate choice for that age. Really. Start with like Romeo and Juliet. Everyone knows the story, there’s a great movie with Leo set on Venice Beach, and it’s not so damn introspective. Just because Hamlet acts like an angst-ridden teen does not mean teens can relate to him. Teens can, however, relate to young lust and wanting to disobey your parents. Also sex jokes. Lots and lots of sex jokes.
I didn’t really understand Hamlet until I studied it my senior year of college, in my English lit thesis class. And, even now, I still HARDLY understand it. I get pieces of it, glimpses of the brilliance of the entire play, but I have no idea about a lot of it. I just learned, for instance, that before Ophelia kills herself, the flowers she gives to Gertrude and company are symbolically important. The people watching the play be performed in 1603 or so would have understood that the rue (I literally have no idea what that plant even looks like) symbolized adultery. Ophelia is passing her own judgment on Gertrude. That blew my mind. Completely changed my opinion on Ophelia. I had always looked at her and her death as her lack of understanding as to why Hamlet was acting the way he was acting; that his madness (either feigned or real), his lack of affection, is what caused her to commit suicide. I’ve always had issues with feminist readings of Ophelia for this very reason, but now I see her as a feminist icon. She’s telling the other members of the Danish court what she thinks of them, making her own statement in a text where she doesn’t appear to have much agency.
2) I used SparkNotes in every Shakespeare class I’ve ever taken. I used them when I was writing a paper to become a docent at a Shakespeare library. I use them before I go see a play because they do a pretty decent job at capturing the major themes. “I didn’t want to rely on SparkNotes because I wanted to cheat my way though it; I simply wanted to understand what was going on in words and terms that were tangible to me.” This is literally what SparkNotes is for. Not for cheating; it’s for context. It’s a studying aid! If people only read the SparkNotes version, there would be a problem. But if you were in high school and they handed you a scanned copy of the First Folio edition (straight from 1623) of Hamlet with NO context, you would die. I would die. Stephen Greenblatt would probably also die because the editions of the plays most scholars use (when they’re not looking at facsimiles of the First Folio or Quarto editions) have more footnotes than actual text on a page. Go pick up an Arden edition of Hamlet. It’s like SparkNotes on crack and it’s amazing for helping the play make sense. Understanding something that was written 400 years ago is hard. Shakespeare is hard. Learning is hard. If you want to study something easy what’s the point?
3)The Taming of the Shrew is a problematic play. 100% agree. And the entire interpretation of the play rests on the final speech—and if you only read the play, you might not see that there is what I (and actual, real scholars as well, not just me ranting on the internet) believe to be irony. (Which, given Kate’s nature in the play, makes sense to me) (Go watch 10 Things I Hate About You again).
I understand the frustrations of moral relativism, I do, and it’s hard to not look at that play without thinking “this is absurd.” But do you really think, given Kate’s character, that she is so turned around by Petruchio at the end? That her character has been tamed? Because I don’t think Kate has been so changed by the events of the play within the play that she would forgo her entire character development up to that point. Think about it – the entire play Kate is always upstaged by Petruchio and then in that final scene BAM she takes the scene away from him and owns it. You can’t just think about the play as a text on a piece of paper; you have to think about the text as a play with living breathing acting people speaking those words.
Or is it that Kate realized she and Petruchio are perhaps well matched and that he doesn’t want the submissive wife she describes–but society expects him to and for her to submit? Do they, collectively, trick society?
The most problematic plot of Taming of the Shrew takes place as a “play within a play”. The storyline that is the most offensive is framed by a different problematic story, but for our purposes, the issues of female submission exists in a space that is once removed from Shakespeare. This is a very important literary device. The entire Petruchio and Kate storyline is a story within a story that is only performed because a Noble tricks Christopher Sly into believing he is a nobleman, that a serving boy is his wife, and they all watch a play together.
So, to set the scene for the rest of the narrative, the play begins with a drunken trick. This framing device is very important for several reasons (not the least of which is that fact that a framing device even exists in the early modern period in a play?! We’ve seen it in other texts before this, but in a play? Nope! Does that not give you pause?) Think about what a framing device does. Think about it in terms of the Iliad (I slept with all these women while my wife is remaining faithful and she’ll totally take me back) or in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights (keeping yourself alive but then you sleep with the guy who wants to kill you anyway and have this three sons). Do you really believe any of the narrators? Think about how framing devices can distance the author from the story within the story. There is an element of unreliability inherent in framed stories. There is doubt. Perhaps something Shakespeare didn’t agree with? (And yes, I realize that right there I am conflating Shakespeare and man and the play. See? It’s hard for everyone) He does, after all, place a horrible misogynistic tale in the middle of a trick, but what I see it doing is painting the climax as farce. That final speech where Kate says women should submit to men, by virtue of being within a framing device, renders it a useless argument. It’s like Colbert on The Colbert Report, you know he’s acting something out, he’s in a character and he using extreme ideology to prove how wrong something is. This could never be said outright, it has to be hidden within a story within a story.
And, in the end, who is the shrew? Is it Kate? Is it Christopher Sly? Is it the noble who puts this entire thing together?
3.5) Shakespeare also gave us some awesome and powerful ladies like Lady MacBeth (power hungry and makes her husband commit a ton of murders), the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet (basically dismantling the patriarchy with her sex positive vibes) and Cordelia. Go read King Lear. Right now. Cordelia for Queen of the universe. Damn.
4) “I’d rather not put an old, rich, white man from regal Britain and his antiquated ideologies about society on a pedestal.”
Me neither, sister, me neither.
Did you know that Shakespeare had education up to a point, roughly a High School diploma and was scoffed at by Ben Johnson and Chris Marlow because he wasn’t university educated? And that he was pretty much a self-made man in a profession WHERE YOU COULD BE THROWN IN JAIL IF YOU WEREN’T A MEMBER OF A NOBLE’S HOUSEHOLD BECAUSE YOU WERE CONSIDER TO BE LESS THAN A BEGGAR BECAUSE BEING AN ACTOR MEANT YOU DRESSED IN OUTFITS THAT WEREN’T OKAY FOR YOU STATION IN SOCIETY WHEN YOU WERE ON STAGE. Sorry, all capitol letter rant over. I just get really impassioned by sumptuary laws. Which is weird. I know, I know.
Shakespeare couldn’t live a glamorous life, because his profession was mostly illegal. He did make some good investment over the years that allowed him to retire and buy the second largest home in Stratford, but that money was mostly made from being a business man. Upward social mobility, while less difficult that it had been in the past, wasn’t very widespread. The very fact that a man who made his living in the theater was able to purchase a coat of arms from the monarchy is of note, if only viewed through the lens of the particularity of history. Granted, he invested in owning the playhouse his plays were performed in, but he hardly made anything from actually writing. Copyright laws weren’t really a thing yet. Printers, in fact, owned the rights to plays, not the authors themselves.
William Shakespeare was into himself, I will give you that. He thought he was pretty brilliant, and you know what? He was. No one else has been able to take stories and turn them into what he turned them into. The story he based Hamlet off of? Pretty lame until you get the ghosts floating around the castle. Have you read Historia Regum Britanniae? It’s hardly a page turner. Pretty dry. Shakespeare takes source material and makes it interesting. He adds in double plots, foils, fudges ages of characters and, more importantly, breathes life into them. Henry V is way more interesting when he’s running around France saying things like:
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers
Instead of just yelling at his men in regular military terms, Henry gives them a rousing speech that is, as you might note, the title of the WWII miniseries that rocked my world a few years back. It’s like if Aragon had just shrugged at the Black Gate instead of yelling “BUT IT IS NOT THIS DAY!”
All Shakespeare had to catch his audience’s attention was with words and some of the most beautiful poetry in the English language has comes from him. And yes, old white men in power did, regrettably, make the canon over the years, but that doesn’t mean we should toss it all out. Without Shakespeare we wouldn’t have phrases you use every day, words that roll off our lips, and stories that resonate today.
And you’re right, academia is entrenched in the problematic idea of a white, male literary canon and I also find that problematic. Women, writers of color are all marginalized to make way for traditionally taught authors. That is a travesty. I think high school students should be reading a wider array of primary texts, regardless of what century those texts were written in, and the argument that those texts simply don’t exist simply isn’t true. I would hope that the lack of representation is getting better, but, again, this circles back to the education issue address earlier in this piece. I would, however, hesitate to say that what currently is considered literary canon is bad because it was written by a long dead white man.
5) You don’t have to like Shakespeare. You can be taken seriously in the world of literature and not like him. I can’t stand certain “canonical” authors, and I own up to it and discuss my problems with the work/the author and I’m never cast out of any literary salons (or whatever their modern-day, non-pretentious equivalent would be). In fact, I think it makes me more interesting that I don’t really like writers like George Eliot. Or that I actually refuse to read any more Thomas Hardy because I was spoon feed Jude the Obscure. People tend to first fake mock horror but then are genuinely interested in why I don’t like Hardy. Even I, as a devoted follower of Shakespeare, would never balk at an Oxfordian, or someone else who doesn’t believe the man named William Shakespeare wrote the plays we attribute to him.
Your insecurity about your dislike is, yes, deeply rooted in a system that has long held the works of old white men in the high regard, but that doesn’t mean you have to feel uncomfortable for not liking it or for calling someone out on it. That’s a personal issue that I, or anyone else, can’t help you with. You have to own up to your dislike and hopefully make an educated argument about it, rather than just using arguments I heard from my classmates in 10th grade when we read The Scottish Play. Your argument seems to rest on the most basic and banal reasoning, and while I don’t think every aspect of life needs to be explained through rational thought process and arguments, if you just don’t like Shakespeare, that’s okay. Just say it. Don’t halfheartedly cobble together a few other arguments that every English teacher possibly ever has already heard.
All literature is hard to understand; that’s what makes it beautiful and that’s why we study it. Shakespeare is hard. It’s hard reading a language you feel that you should be able to understand, but you don’t because the words are all just a little bit different or used in different ways. It’s hard to understand why a tiny slice of feminism, or proto-feminism, is a big deal because you and I are lucky enough to have been able to taught to read, as opposed to most women in the Early Modern Period who wouldn’t have had the luxury of reading or writing for pleasure. But perhaps, to a girl standing as a groundling on the floor of the globe, watching Kate submit in that final scene in The Taming of the Shrew, caught the actor playing Kate’s wink at the audience. Or maybe a mother saw a production of Romeo and Juliet and thought to herself, hmm, maybe I should teach my daughter that it’s okay to enjoy sex like the nurse says. I don’t know. I’m completely projecting here.
I guess I’m lucky. I love it. I eat that stuff up. I can read Early Modern English in the original typeset because I’ve spent years training myself to do so. I didn’t love Shakespeare when I first read Romeo and Juliet. I thought it was overblown and I didn’t get the hype surrounding it. It was just a story and I was far more interested in watching the movie where Leo is in the pool for the balcony scene. I didn’t really appreciate Shakespeare until I saw a production of Hamlet for the first time. Suddenly, I understood what it was all about. I sat there for three house completely enraptured by the events on stage. It was the first time I ever saw Shakespeare live and there is something about those words being uttered on stage, live, that flipped a switch in my brain. I didn’t understand the entire play at the time but I understood that it was powerful, that those words meant something to me, sitting in the balcony 400 years after they were first written. I had to hear it before I could even begin to understand.
And it’s not for everyone, no work of literature or art, ever is. It’s subjective and that’s a good thing. I’ll never understand The Awakening, and hey, if it’s your favorite book, more power to you. But literature is a thing of beauty you can hold in your hands; it’s the closest thing we have to experiencing another person’s world view. Reading is such an intimate act, one that connects us to people we can never met and helps us to understand situations we never can experience. And discrediting something entirely just because it’s difficult keeps others from perhaps finding that beauty.