I have some questionable opinions about Shakespeare. People bring this to my attention with some degree of frequency, as though I could have possibly gotten through any decent literature degree program without being made painfully aware of it already. But to maintain my reputation as a decent critical analyst, I thought I should address the issue head-on, rather than taking underhanded cheap shots at one of the most important figures in Western culture.
Here’s the thing: Shakespeare may have been a genius or he may have been an idiot. He was certainly a hack. And I mean that in the purest sense of the word – he wrote things quickly and for money. The terms “hack” and “hacky” have come to mean “untalented” or “subpar” in more recent usage, and that’s how I use it in reference to myself. Because I’m not making any money here. But Shakespeare was a hired quill. He did not do what he did for the love of the craft or for the sake of art. Not primarily, anyway. He did it so that he could eat things made of food in Elizabethan London. No small task, that. And he was constantly on deadline. The best modern analogy I can come up with is a writer for something like Saturday Night Live. Or one of those stereotypical 1930s newspapermen in their snappy little fedoras (but let’s be serious – did those guys ever really exist? Or did we create them out of our collective cultural subconscious?).
Believe me, I’m not saying that Shakespeare wasn’t talented. He wrote about real people in an age when everything was supposed to be about royal or ecumenical ass-kissery. To be frank, he pandered to his audience. Which is a useful skill and gets butts in theater seats (or on theater floors, I suppose, to be historically accurate). A ballsy business maneuver, and one that worked quite well. Probably the best description I’ve ever heard of Romeo and Juliet came from comedian Tim Minchin: “Who among us hasn’t bought drugs off a dodgy chemist so we could have a shag without pissing off our dad?” Fair enough. Touche, Minchin. So why is that story so bloody complicated? The weird family drama is almost unrelatable anymore. Because teenagers have always been both crazy and stupid, but at some point that whole propriety thing fell to the wayside. Do you see what I’m saying? The kernel of universality gets lost somewhere in the unintelligible language and the obsolete social constructs. A modern reader is more confused than moved.
As far as his actual writing style, a lot of people can’t slog through the language to get to what he was really saying under all that blah blah. Our language is our culture, people, and we’re five hundred years removed from Shakespeare in both of those regards. Because not only is his dialogue unapproachable, but we literally can’t relate to how those folks lived their day-to-day lives. I think that’s probably the most important thing to remember about Shakespeare. Some things are universal – love, sex, death, etc. Some things just aren’t – money, social hierarchy, madness, running water. For example, you realize that Much Ado About Nothing is a two-hour-long pussy joke, right? It’s not a sweet rom-com, y’all. The word “nothing” was the slang of the era. And really blue slang, too. Not a word one would use in polite company. Watch that play again. It’s full of double entendres and witty wordplay but it’s dirty, dirty, dirty.
And, to make another point about Shakespeare that’s not actually about Shakespeare, these are plays we’re talking about, for the most part. Plays from an era before literacy was an expectation of the masses. They were never meant to be read. I quite enjoy seeing Shakespeare’s stuff performed, but it’s a bugger to see on the page. Reading, translating, seeing, and hearing are all processed in completely different areas of the brain. Sonnets aside, Shakespeare’s work was not created for readers. Fact.
Also, the mere fact that so much of his work survived at all is a fucking miracle. It shouldn’t have. Like I said, he needed to churn out scripts on a schedule. In an era when paper was rare and expensive, they should not have made it through the vigorous fucking up they would have received getting passed around a whole company of grubby actors who didn’t own forks. Thank the gods that hoarders have always existed, right? But that also means that we have very few similar artists with whom we can compare Shakespeare, and none whose extant wok is so prolific, for sure. A play, poem, or story or two or ten here and there, but no one with such a body of work, and certainly not such a varied body.
He’s become our touchstone for an entire age, and we really don’t know that he should have. And this image that we have of him, that we nurture, as the great genius artist toiling away over his beautiful labors and bringing art into the bleak lives of the unwashed masses? That’s utter bullshit. He was as much a stinking serf as the rest of them. A great wordsmith, absolutely, but not as removed from those he was observing as we seem to depict him.
So, I have officially stated it all for the record. That means I don’t have to have this conversation anymore, right? Right. Hopefully.