I’m not sure how serious my correspondent was when he asked me if I could give him some advice on what to say to his teenage son, who couldn’t see the sense of studying Shakespeare. He said he was at a loss for what to tell the kid, for he didn’t see much point in reading the Bard either. So I batted back an e-mail arguing that not knowing at least a little about Shakespeare places one in a culturally disadvantaged position. His work is part of our store of common lore and wisdom to the extent that even if we don’t know Shakespeare, we constantly make use of him. Besides, I weakly offered, Shakespeare can be a lot of fun. Reading him—studying him—shouldn’t be looked on as a chore but as an adventure. My correspondent was unimpressed with this schoolmarmish counsel. He thanked me for trying and turned down my offer of a free copy of Shakespeare for Dummies which we’d earmarked for the charity pile.
I don’t know this guy. But I can surmise from his e-mails that he has a good if somewhat snarky sense of humor and he’s reasonably well engaged with popular culture. College educated, he keeps up with movies and music and sports. He reads the newspaper.
But to him it makes sense that his son is rebelling at the idea of reading Shakespeare. He doesn’t see the utility of parsing archaic words, counting the feet and sweating out an essay on whether Hamlet loves Ophelia. He doesn’t see how Shakespeare could help the kid get a better job.
This may be a prevailing school of thought in an America in which, according to a 2004 study by the National Endowment for the Arts, less than half the population is likely to read a work of literature—of any quality—over the course of a year. Last year another study, by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, surveyed English departments at 70 universities—the top 25 national universities and liberal arts colleges as identified by U. S. News and World Report and “the Big Ten, select public universities in New York and California, and schools in and around the nation’s capital”—and found that only 15 of them required their English majors to take a course in Shakespeare. They produced a report called The Vanishing Shakespeare that you can read online (www.vanishingshakespeare.org).
The council contends that Shakespeare is being pushed out by requirements that English majors take courses that focus on nonliterary subjects like politics, sociology and popular culture.
Leaving aside the political implications of the study—there ought to be a place for courses on writers who don’t happen to be dead white guys—the council’s study empirically confirms a long-held suspicion that while Shakespeare is still a potent icon, fewer people are actually reading his work. This is a shame. So I thought I might take another crack at convincing this guy’s son that Shakespeare is worthwhile.
The Play’s the Thing
First, Shakespeare the man is interesting. This is because he’s so mysterious—turns out we know very little about his life. His contemporaries didn’t think him all that remarkable, although he was apparently a great actor as well as a great and incredibly prolific playwright. This personal mysteriousness has led to all sorts of speculation and controversy about what he might have done as a youth, his sexuality and how he managed to enter the theater in the first place. Denying the Stratford man named William Shakespeare the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays has become a favorite parlor game among quasi-academics—the Earl of Oxford, Queen Elizabeth, Francis Bacon and Christopher Marlowe have all been trotted out as potential “real” authors of Shakespeare’s works. You can go down that rabbit hole if you like—good luck to you—but I don’t think it really matters.
Because we know so little about Shakespeare, we are free to imagine him, perhaps even to invent him. That’s what happened in the 1998 movie Shakespeare in Love—a silly romantic comedy that tells us nothing about the actual Shakespeare (but does make a cursory examination of the relationship of individual experience to the art-making process ).
Shakespeare—whoever he or she may be—wrote 39 plays (that we know of ). If the Stratford man wrote them, he averaged two or three for every year of his adult life. While they’re not all important works, and some are arguably not even good, he managed a handful of the most enduring works of all time—plays that have so infiltrated the Western consciousness that people who have never seen or read them recognize their plots.
To have written either Hamlet or Othello might have been sufficient to install a writer in the pantheon of English lit—to have written both of them and dozens of other plays that, 400 years after they were first staged, are still among the most presented works in the theater, is mind-boggling. Can tens of thousands of theater companies be wrong? Mightn’t the fact that Shakespeare is still the most-produced playwright around be reason enough for curiosity?
Shakespeare didn’t only write plays—he wrote 154 sonnets, a couple of long narrative poems and assorted other works. Working at a time when English wasn’t received as a completely legitimate language—the English conducted legal matters in French and Latin in Shakespeare’s time—he minted thousands of words such as alligator, critic, investments, luggage, retirement, wormhole and zany. If you speak English, you speak a language partially invented and fundamentally shaped by Shakespeare. We speak his words unconsciously because so much of what Shakespeare wrote has been absorbed into cliche—phrases such as elbow room, cold comfort, good riddance, strange bedfellows and hundreds more.
For better or worse, Shakespeare’s work is completely adaptable—it can be transposed in time and space. (As the 1956 film Forbidden Planet ably demonstrated. ) Hardly a year goes by that a handful of his plays aren’t translated to the screen—every actor, every director wants to give Shakespeare a go. To really understand Star Trek, you need to know a little Shakespeare. To really understand Deadwood, you need to know a little Shakespeare. To really understand Elvis Costello or Radiohead or almost any artist who communicates in English or means to attract a Western audience, you need to know a little Shakespeare.
And more than that, Shakespeare may have invented the idea of being human.
It has long been suggested that Shakespeare played a major role in devising the notion of self-consciousness and the idea of individual identity. In his 1999 book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Harold Bloom, a professor of humanities at Yale, goes further, insisting there is more to Shakespeare than even his admirers have heretofore claimed, that humanity itself—our “human nature”—was “invented” by William Shakespeare. Bloom’s argument—an intriguing idea with no practical application—can be boiled down to this: Since Shakespeare invented literary character as we know it, and since we create ourselves through literature (through language ), then Shakespeare is the ultimate father of us all. Shakespeare has infected the psychology, if not the chemistry, of the mind; he created the templates to which even those of us who aren’t familiar with his work unthinkingly subscribe. Shakespeare is a ghost who haunts us; even if we don’t recognize the face there’s something eerily familiar in those clanking chains. He’s part of what a certain kind of person—maybe the sort who’d prefer English majors study whatever Tolstoy the Zulus nominate—calls our “cultural baggage.” While getting too involved in critical theory would defeat our purpose (which is, remember, to convince a teenage boy that Shakespeare is worth his trouble), to understand what Bloom is saying we have to deal with a school of literary criticism called New Historicism. To grossly oversimplify, New Historicists believe character is subordinate to action. (This idea goes back to Aristotle but only became the dominant thread in Shakespeare studies since the late 1960 s or so.)
New Historicism holds that an individual’s belief in free will is illusory; we are just products of the way power flows and eddies through society. We think we can choose, but in fact we’re like the stalactites in a cave. We might seem to be distinct and individual but our individuality is not the result of anything more than the way water runs and minerals accrete. A stalactite doesn’t decide its own shape—it doesn’t even decide it’s going to be a stalactite.
Bloom has a theological problem with New Historicism; he doesn’t believe in it. Bloom believes character matters, that character decides action rather than the other way around.
Most people intuitively believe they have free will (and in the late 18 th century William Hazlitt and Samuel Taylor Coleridge codified this worldview in their Romantic criticism). Bloom believes in the Self—just as Shakespeare obviously believed in the Self.
Otherwise why would Hamlet take so long to make up his mind? The answer is because Shakespeare found Hamlet’s waffling dramatically interesting and guessed his audience (which wasn’t an elite but the unwashed rabble) would find it interesting as well. Why? Because they could—to use another word that certain people like to use—relate to Hamlet’s waffling. They could watch this character on stage and understand what it was like to be the Prince of Denmark because the Prince was like them in that he suffered self-doubt and indecision.
Bloom would argue that before Shakespeare, before Hamlet, we didn’t have self-doubt and indecision; we had these inchoate feelings stewing in us, but it was up to Shakespeare to figure out how a human could integrate and articulate these feelings.
“Before Hamlet taught us not to have faith either in language or in ourselves, being human was much simpler for us but also rather less interesting,” Bloom writes. “Shakespeare, through Hamlet, has made us skeptics in our relationships with anyone, because we have learned to doubt articulateness in the realm of affection.” Bloom also argues that “our ability to laugh at ourselves as readily as we do at others owes much to Falstaff” and that Shakespeare’s Cleopatra is the model for all complicated erotic feelings—she taught us “how impossible it is to divorce acting the part of being in love and the reality of being in love.” In Iago’s malign purpose, in Lear’s madness, in Macbeth’s suspicion that life is meaningless, Bloom finds the roots of 19 th-century nihilism—Shakespeare anticipated Dostoevsky, Baudelaire, Freud, Kurt Cobain and shoegazing emo.
Sure, Bloom’s claims are extravagant; he’s saying we didn’t know how to be human until the Bard showed us. Had Shakespeare never existed, we would still be human—if you cut us we’d still bleed—but isn’t it likely that we would have evolved much differently than we had? Would words retain the power to move the heart? Would the heart even suffice as a symbol for the headquarters of affection? Oh, Romeo—what Bloom is really arguing is that Shakespeare’s importance is so great as to be unfathomable; his effect on Western culture is immeasurable. Which is exactly what your teachers tell you.
Some of them—the New Historicist kind—might tell you genius is a kind of accident, a chimera perceived because the forces of history conspire to force the mirage. Shakespeare was a product of the economy, a cynical playwright seeking to draw paying customers to his plays. And because the plays somehow endured we think that he was special. Because something has to be special.
But I’ll say this, son: Shakespeare matters because we matter, because what’s inside us is more than a jumble of responses to an external matrix of various social energies. Bloom is arguing not for the genius of Shakespeare—it speaks for itself—but for the existence of some unique personal endowment in Shakespeare, a Promethean spark (look it up, you got Wikipedia) he passed along to us.