Heyo! And welcome to today’s Shakespeare Saturday.
Today I want to answer a question I get far more frequently than I would have thought:
Why the obsession with Shakespeare?
To be fair, I don’t get this from writers very often. We’re a classy bunch, after all, and understand the mechanics of good storytelling. Shakespeare has survived as long as he has because of understood those mechanics. So of course we, the writers of the world, understand and admire what he was capable of doing.
But, for lack of a better word, outsiders? A lot of them don’t seem to get it. And, though I am loathe to disparage the education system (OK, I’m not, but you really don’t want to read THAT rant any time soon), I think it’s the way we teach Shakespeare that is to blame.
You know how we here at Nerd Cactus have a motto regarding the Bard? If you didn’t, it’s this: Shakespeare is for everyone. Yeah. Everyone. You don’t need to be classically educated or, hell, literate to enjoy Shakespeare. After all, most of the people who enjoyed his plays in his own time were neither. You think the groundlings were engaged in philosophical and/or etymological debates about Shakespeare’s use of prose vs verse? No. They were laughing, crying, enjoying the play.
Because Shakespeare’s gift was in making himself — and his work — accessible.
Yes, some of the idioms and vernacular aren’t in everyday use anymore, and he writes like a poet so his language might not be instantly relatable for a modern reader, but he wrote in clear, comprehensible, modern English. And, most of all, actors know how to use it.
But then, somewhere down the line (re: the Romantic era), Shakespeare became The Bard. The greatest English playwright ever. The one of high art and unassailable greatness, with literary merit unlike any other. He became the purview of the elite in the estimation of the elites. This is why, I think, we have the phenomenon of questioning whether Shakespeare wrote his own work. Why we want to take it from the common writer and give it to another, very often a noble. Because works of such genius cannot belong to a man so… normal. So average. So much like the people the classist elites thought themselves the superiors of.
So now we teach Shakespeare as if he is a writer from above and not among us. We teach him as if he is meant to be admired and not loved, appreciated from afar like a museum piece and not grasped in our hands and held to our hearts like a beloved comfort. We read him in dull voices and discuss why Malvolio has to wear yellow stockings instead of listening to the wordplay, finding the comedy in the tragedy (and the tragedy in the comedy), the historical allusions, the way staging and language work together. We cut Shakespeare off from the stage, from performance. It’s like trying to play Ode To Joy on a tin whistle.
So why Shakespeare? Because Shakespeare is what we should all aspire to. He wrote from within, inspired by his own experiences, and without, inspired by the events going on around him. He listened to his actors and accepted critique. He adapted. He knew what his audience wanted and gave it to them, but also had no problems challenging them. He knew characters and let them speak. He knew the stage (his form) and mastered its use. Basically, he was the one who did all that authors dream of doing… and he was successful at it.
And, frankly, I don’t understand why more people aren’t flocking to his side.