Dammit, Bard.

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.

11 thoughts on “Dammit, Bard.

  1. Well…………………………I personally really enjoy Shakespeare. Performance is certainly easier to understand, but I also enjoy reading him. And I love the sonnets. So, I’m not too sure I’m in agreement with you….

    1. I enjoy his stuff tremendously, I’m just saying that we’re doing it wrong. Plays shouldn’t be read. That’s not what plays are for. If it were, we’d call them “reads.” Why does everyone think I’m saying I hate his work?

      1. “Because not only is his dialogue unapproachable, but we literally can’t relate to how those folks lived their day-to-day lives”.
        I disagree totally on the second half of this sentence. It is when a writer CAN make you see how folks lived their day to day lives that makes them gifted. If they can’t, then you’re saying we can’t possibly know how it was. You’re basically saying that all of the old masters aren’t valid anymore. Pride and Prejudice? Jane Eyre? Little House on the Prairie?

        1. I see what you’re saying, but we can only really imagine it or picture what we think it would have been like (which I understand is the entire point of literature, but just put a pin in that for a second and follow me). And then we glorify it and clean it up and make it something that it wasn’t. That’s the problem. I’m not saying the old masters aren’t valid. Why would I say that? (Although I do hate Jane Austen with a fucking passion – but we’ll leave that for another time.) I’m saying that we have a removed, intellectualized, sanitized version of them in our heads that might skew how we see their (and their characters’) motivations or their reactions. Like there being no bloody murder in fairy tales anymore. We have this Masterpiece Theatre kind of image of what Elizabethan Londoners were like, and all I’m saying is that it was probably more horrible than we think it was. Not to mention all the bullshit British social structure stuff which is, frankly, still baffling to me and it doesn’t even matter anymore. But it did then, because you needed to know who was entitled to come in and take your house from you because he’s your landlord’s cousin’s grandfather or something. I can’t relate to that at all.

          1. No, Nessa, I would have to say many films I’ve seen and books I’ve read do not glorify England at all in those times……..Elizabeth, with Cate Blanchett, Shakespeare in Love, Moll Flanders, and to go even further back, Ken Follet’s Pillars of the Earth series. I have no rose colored glasses on when it comes to old England. And what they did to the Arabs, Egyptians, Indians, and Boers…….I think a lot of well read people know what horrors the social structure held then, especially in regards to women.

  2. Yeah, I’m not generally a fan of reading his stuff. A well-done production of his stuff, though…I’m there. An actor who was Hamlet in a live version I saw in high school finally got that across to me. Like, “Oh. This story that I have always hated with a blazing passion actually makes sense now. Huh.” And now Hamlet actually is one that I don’t mind reading.

    Incidentally, have you seen The Hollow Crown? I’m currently on a mission to tell the world about it, because holy shit. Watch it.

    1. I have not seen The Hollow Crown. I’ll look it up, though, because you cussed about it and that never happens. I’m so there.

    2. I also did not care about The Hollow Crown until you swore. Now it is fairly high on my to-watch list.

  3. A few nits to pick at some of your premise, which may or may not change your over-all perspective. Yes, Shakespeare was a hack, but he was also a deliberately serious and very good writer. Look no further than his sonnets and poems, some of which he personally was involved with the publishing of: http://www.shakespeare-online.com/biography/shakespearename.html
    This is well reflected in his plays, I think.

    It wasn’t paper so much as publishing in general that was a scarcity in London, with the printing and booksaling industries intertwined and controlled by the trade guild: http://www.bl.uk/treasures/shakespeare/booktrade.html

    This, combined with the fact that copyright wasn’t a thing and that playwrites didn’t profit from publishing contribute to the seemingly nonsensical existance of the First Folio. But then we should consider that Shakespeare’s plays were saved by his contemporaries soley because *they* thought them worthy of saving.

    As for Shakespeare being a common serf, no, not really. His was, by the standards of his day, a wealthy man. He owned the second-best house in Stratford, was able to semi-retire in an age where practically no one other than the upper echelons of nobility could consider doing that, and bought a coat of arms for his father 30 years after the application for it was made. The man had aspirations. And did fairly well in seperating himself from the folk from whom he made his living.

    1. Nits successfully picked, sir. I will say two things in my defense, though. I never said he wasn’t good, or that his writing for money made him any less serious about the work. He just wasn’t all dreamy artist guy living on love and art. Dude was doing a job, right? A job he liked and was good at, but a job nonetheless. Which, I suppose, speaks to my haphazard use of the word “serf.” I should stop using that as a synonym for “working person,” when what I mean is “not of the aristocracy.” A self-made man who worked his ass off, fine. But he still had more in common with the people in the bottom level of his audience than those who were born into the landed gentry or the noble class or whatever. Why is that relevant? I suppose it’s not, other than that he wrote about common people well and made their problems as important as Hamlet’s or King Lear’s.

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