September 29, 2010


A while back, I had lunch with a former student who had just returned from a performance of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.  As we were leaving for the restaurant he said, “I really don’t like Shakespeare.”  His voice was barely above a whisper, as if he feared I could reach across the passage of 30 years and change his English grade from an A to a C.

After teaching Shakespeare for decades, I have to admit I agree with my former student. I don’t much care for Shakespeare, either. Yes, I know his quotable lines seem almost infinite, but I can think of other plays of the period I’d rather watch.  John Webster’s, “The Duchess of Malfi would be one of them. His villain, Bosola, rivals Iago when it comes to treachery. Anything by Christopher Marlowe would be a preference as well. One wonders, if Shakespeare’s works weren’t crammed down our throats by college professors ready to fall on their swords for the Bard, would he have survived time’s passage. So many of his stories are derivatives, anyway.  Would much be lost if we bundled up his works and built a bonfire of the vanities?

Heresy true. A little tongue in cheek, yes. But it’s also true, I wouldn’t weep if Shakespeare exited stage right. He’s like the birch tree in my garden (Blog 9/21/2010), casting a shade that prevents other writers from finding a place in the sun. We are told he is the measure of great literature because his themes are timeless. Well maybe. He writes of ambition, of greed, of love. What writer doesn’t? So in the broadest sense, the question must be asked, are his expression of these themes relevant for today. Hamlet may suffer the slings and arrows of a villainous uncle but has he ever been subjected to electronic bullying? King Lear may have lost the roof over his head but was it due to a corrupt banking system?  Nick Bottom may have dreamed he wore an ass’s head, but was he drug addicted? Or was Othello felled by racial discrimination? No, no, no and no again.

I fear when art becomes institutionalized, it also becomes fossilized. The phenomenon occurs when experts insist upon telling the rest of us what’s good and what isn’t. Without the  crutch of educational institutions that keep Shakespeare in their curriculum, one wonders how well he would do mano a mano in the market place today… against Dan Brown, for example.

Okay, just kidding … but me thinks there is a grain of truth in what I’ve written.