Greetings, readers, you beloved people. (You are, you know? Beloved. You should communicate with us more. We won’t bite. Well…if A goes too method with one of her roles, she might, but I’m safe!) Welcome to Shakespeare Saturday! Let’s get started, shall we?
I might have mentioned I’m doing research for a play. (Cue the audience screaming, “Yes, we know!”) Well, part of the research deals with the fact that William Shakespeare is considered the best playwright in the history of English-ness. Like, in all the time English has existed as a language (even when we wouldn’t recognize it as English), Shakespeare is the greatest. Some people go even further and say he’s the greatest writer in English history, but those people might want to pump the breaks a bit and not get over-excited. Anyway, an important aspect of the play is the way #1 and #2 react to the fact that they’re #1 and #2. We have the intellectual whose comedies are masterpieces of satire and intricate characterization (but whose tragedies left a bit to be desired), and then we have Shakespeare.
Today, I want to talk about him. Mostly ’cause it’s, you know, Shakespeare Saturday.
Why is William Shakespeare considered the greatest? Why was that decision made (because it was a decision that was made), and when? I’d ask who, but I think that’s pretty obvious: the people. Shakespeare is the people’s playwright in a way that very few are. Audiences connect with him, actors connect with him, and scholars adore him. He is not as intellectual as, say, Ben Jonson (the other guy in my play), who is far more the scholars’ darling (and whose work, I think, was written to be analyzed far more than Shakespeare’s ever was), but Shakespeare resonates with people. Which is, of course, why he’s considered number one.
Oh, look, I guess I can end the blog now. We’ve solved it! Woo! But…no. What kind of historian would I be if I didn’t give you some details?! Please…bear with me. It’s been too long since I got out my note cards (yes, I’m a dinosaur who writes things on note cards…no, I do not want to digitize; it would just confuse me), and I’m so excited! It’s like soaking into a warm bath. I love it. But let’s move on.
William Shakespeare was not terribly educated. Not formally, anyway. And this is where the skeptics decide to get all elitist and say, “But this uneducated dude can’t have written such masterpieces of theater! The nuance, the way the words play off of one another, the random ass things I can interpret in what he wrote that obviously mean they were intentionally put there by a scholarly writer, bladdy bladdy blah!” As you can tell, I think very little of anyone who dismisses Shakespeare because he wasn’t an intellectual. I, myself, am deeply intellectual–and that’s not really something I’m bragging about because it comes with some downsides, believe me–and let me tell you, book smarts are *not* the only smarts out there. When it comes to the plays of William Shakespeare, I think it’s obvious these are the plays of a man who understood people. They’re very human. It’s what makes them special, not some intellectual merit decided upon in the Ivory Tower. Plus, Ben Jonson, who wrote an epitaph for Shakespeare upon his death, seems to have believed he wrote them despite being of “small Latin and less Greek.” Ben Jonson was a smart dude–I’ll probably write about him later–I don’t think he would have been taken in by some courtly insider or fellow playwright pretending to be a lowly actor. The men were friends (despite the insults they hurled at one another); I think we can trust Jonson on this.
So…moving on. Shakespeare wrote his plays. I’ve written about it here on the blog and I’m not going to reiterate what I wrote already in any detail today. But when did he become the greatest? We have no evidence that he was so especially beloved in his own time. What I mean by that is that he was immensely popular, but it’s not like his works were raised above those of his contemporaries. One of my favorite jokes in Shakespeare in Love is that everyone auditioning for Romeo uses Kit Marlowe as their monologue. Ben Jonson is considered by some to be the first laureate of England; he received a yearly stipend from the crown for many years. Hamlet was just a new version of a folk tale most people were familiar with, a version of Othello had just been done a few decades earlier, and Macbeth was a real dude. Shakespeare wrote some topical stuff, some farcical stuff, and he knew what audiences wanted. But it’s not like Mozart in Amadeus; people weren’t calling him the wunderkind. He is, in fact, one of three Renaissance playwrights whose works have been constantly performed since their era. Jonson is one of the others.
But he is also one of only three. And Kit Marlowe is not one of them. Maybe it’s because Marlowe was killed so young and his repertoire is so limited; I don’t know. But I think I have a theory.
It was the Romantics. No, seriously. They’re the ones who decided Shakespeare was so great. They’re the ones who decided that he was *the* English playwright. It was during the first half of the 19th century–the height of the Romantic era–when William Shakespeare shot ahead of his two contemporaries (can you tell I forgot the name of the third and don’t want to walk to the other room where I know it’s written down and look for the right note card?). Although, for example, Ben Jonson continued to be performed (his play, The Alchemist, is a fricken masterpiece–Coleridge claimed it had one of the three most perfect plots in literature), he dropped way off. It is probably a testament to how good he was that the Romantics didn’t drop him entirely (and even allowed him to be declared #2); his tendency to play by the rules–he was a definite proponent of the classical unities–didn’t really fit with the whole Romantic notion of free expression and intense emotion. He was an avowed intellectual; his plays most definitely fed into what ultimately became Restoration Comedy (another reason the Romantics weren’t too fond of him).
Crap. I was meant to stick to Shakespeare, wasn’t I? At the same time that Jonson really died back, Shakespeare became a star. Well, he was already a star, but he was often heavily edited during the Stuart era when he was performed at all (he suffered during the Enlightenment what Jonson suffered during the Romantic era, albeit on a smaller scale). It was ultimately the Romantic era that launched him into godlike status; they built a pedestal so high, I’m pretty sure Tom Hiddleston would have me arrested if I admitted to not liking some of his stuff. On second thought…Tom, Jonson’s comedies are completely superior to Shakespeare’s. The intellectual nature of Jonson’s satire elevates his comedy above the farce of his somewhat contemporary. Also, Shakespeare’s histories have about as much history in them as Braveheart. Please come with the cops when you have me arrested. Thanks.
Moving on. Why did the Romantics love him so much? Well…for the same reason they didn’t care for Jonson, only in reverse. Shakespeare didn’t follow the rules; he didn’t bother with the classical unities (probably because he didn’t know what they were, though there’s every chance he just ignored them), or attempt to intellectualize. He wrote big, farcical, over-the-top comedies and intense, emotional, sock-it-to-me tragedies. Even his histories are full of emotional expression and bombastic speeches. His plays are an exploration of the nature of things, whether it be marriage, grief, or ambition (and many others). And his women weren’t exempt from that freedom, either, which made it even better. When he was rediscovered, as it were, by the Romantics, he was the opposite of the restrained, careful, studiously witty or intellectual works of the previous era (aka the Enlightenment). He was exactly what the Romantics needed.
So William Shakespeare became The Bard, and we have worshiped him ever since. Why the Romantics’ decision had such staying power has something to do with the superiority of the British Empire combined with the shrinking of the world (the transmission of ideas, the ease of travel, etc). Americans, for one, were obsessed with all things English (even more so than the English). It must be noted that it took longer for Willy Shakes to reach Asia, which already had a strong theater culture of his own, but Akira Kurasawa’s Throne of Blood is evidence that he made it there, eventually. Now if I could just get South Florida to stop being such a cultural wasteland, I would really appreciate it. I have to go to Orlando for some decent Shakespeare, and that brings to mind Mickey Mouse as Macbeth…
Hunh. There isn’t as much cognitive dissonance there as I thought there would be. Anyway, this has been another (very long and now slightly late) Shakespeare Saturday! Tomorrow, we get silly!