Is Shakespeare Just “Okay”?

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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