Heresy of heresies perhaps, but is Shakespeare just “okay”?

I love the idea of Shakespeare, and how enthusiastic actors get about him (Al Pacino and Kevin Spacey have both made wonderful documentaries about their affection for Richard III). I love reading about Shakespeare and imagining the life we know so little about, like those sixteen months that somehow gave us Macbeth, King Lear, and Antony and Cleopatra. I love that he only survived at all mostly in pirated (and then posthumous) editions he may have never approved of, and that during his lifetime he constantly revised his plays and that modern directors continue to do the same. I love that Shakespeare is always just becoming.

But for all that, I don’t go back to read the plays very often.

My favorite quote about him comes from Frank McCourt, who discovered Shakespeare while being hospitalized as a child: “I don’t know what it means and I don’t care because it’s Shakespeare and it’s like having jewels in my mouth when I say the words.”

This was pretty much my reaction in high school when a friend and I went to see Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet in the theater. There was nothing like the language, and I immediately went out and found one of those poorly designed double-column editions of Shakespeare’s complete works. It was a treat to just open to a random page and read aloud.

But for me anyway it rarely got beyond that. I’ve never cared for the comedies or history plays, and even though I love the tragedies, it’s really just scenes from them that I’m attached to, and very rarely the whole. The few times I’ve been lucky enough to see one, I’ve also never met a stage version of Shakespeare that doesn’t thrill; but, again, it’s McCourt’s reason that thrills: sometimes it’s almost as if the poetry were music, and I’m responding more to rhythms and sounds than any sense the language makes. (The idea that Shakespeare’s language offers only minimal difficulties has always seemed silly.)

I’ve also never subscribed to the notion that Shakespeare “invented the human,” and was somehow the first writer to truly create characters with a depth and awareness and ability to change and analyze themselves. This is mostly because his characters are almost buried beneath those jewels of language, beneath an unending run of beauty and wordplay that, alas, is so rarely justified by the context that it often seems a distraction. Very often Shakespeare just knows how good he is, and like an eighteen-minute guitar solo, he’s content to show off for the fun of it. (The only time it does seem justified is in the the one play that I can read and reread over and over, Hamlet.)

Otherwise, like a long distance runner, I find myself going to Shakespeare for a sense of working out and warming up, of just swinging my arms or stretching; but very rarely is the experience of him that of the marathon itself. For that, there’s Dante or Whitman or Eliot’s Four Quartets, or nowadays Wordworth’s Prelude. Or among playwrights, there are the Greek tragedies: even in translation there’s nothing in Shakespeare that moves me as much, or seems either so human or so horrifically sublime, as Oedipus Rex or the Bacchae.

Does this just sound silly to most of the literate world? Am I missing something? Is it possible that Shakespeare is actually so good I would rather dismiss him almost entirely than recognize this?

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8 thoughts on “Is Shakespeare Just “Okay”?

  1. Well, as someone who saw “Romeo and Juliet” in the theater in high school in its Franco Zeffirelli version, I have a longer acquaintance than you, but perhaps no greater claim to insight. There is, I think, nothing like seeing Shakespeare performed, and I’ve seen most of the plays onstage during the past 5 decades. That said, what I love about the live performances is the language. It helps a great deal to have read it, because it’s not quite “our” language, although we can get very, very close. Performed live, with voices, characterizations, personae, the language — I think — signifies what Shakespeare intended it to. I’ve seen the plays in a wealth of settings — or without “sets”; across centuries; to wild music; primitive, primordial chthonic netherworlds and the far future. It’s still the language. I simply don’t want to see any “adaptations” that fiddle with the language. That’s no longer Shakespeare. Thanks.

  2. Probably best read in selection. I’m currently re-reading the Ted Hughes’ Selection on Faber. It is astounding, playful, trite, lazy, wordy/verbose… in other words there is something and more for every part of us, our moods, our best bits and our failings as people.

  3. I own a collection of all of his works (in one inexpensive volume), and every now and then I read a play. The dialectic element is substantial, and the language is superb. Any writer should read Shakespeare for the frame of reference.

  4. After teaching Romeo and Juliet about 6 times in my first year of teaching, I felt exactly like this. Like he was just ‘Okay’ and there was always something else I would’ve preferred to read. To be honest, teaching has sucked my old enjoyment for Shakespeare right outta me lol

  5. Tolkien famously criticized Shakespeare and the medium. I would argue that Beowulf, Le Morte D’Arthur, and Paradise Lost are far more profound cultural contributions than Shakespeare’s, but I’m mythologically biased.

  6. I think you’re right on the money ~ I also like Shakespeare more for the sound of his words than for the stories, necessarily. But anyway, who’s to say why or how we should like something? There’s a strong pressure among a lot of literature circles to *understand* and to be able to immediately respond with something pithy about *how much you understand*. I’ve never really bought it ~ I see literature as a good cup of valerian-root tea: it takes a long time to steep, and the imbibing of the goodness often comes long after the initial reading, but once it does, it gets right into the soul and heals from within.

    It’s funny that I came back to this open tab when I did … I was just gonna clean up my browser a bit before hitting the couch with the words of Dante I mostly don’t understand. I have all three books of the Divine Comedy in a large book with many annotations, which I mostly don’t read until sometime after I’ve read the original. This edition also has, at the beginning of each canto, translations/interpretations that I mostly don’t read until after the original.

    It seems silly to me to read the translations and the annotations as I go, when what I’m really chasing is an immersive experience in language that sounds really cool about subjects that fascinate me deeply. I don’t want the answers quickly, and I don’t want someone else’s answers. I want to steep myself in Dante’s words and trust they will yield the goodness whenever and however they feel like it.

  7. Jim, do you happen to know where Tolkien said this? It’s something I thought as well, especially when reading King Lear. Seems to me WS took an astonishingly simple frame story myth & stuffed it with Elizabethan complexity. That’s the impression I got anyhow; nice to know JRR, who knows the myths better than anybody, may’ve felt the same way.

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