Seriously, Calm Down
A Healthy Dose of #Shakespeare400 Skepticism
Shakespeare is overrated. There, I said it. The year 2016 marks 400 years since the death of a man from Stratford-upon-Avon who wrote, or contributed to, some thirty-seven plays. Some of them are good. Some of them are terrible. Most of them are overrated.
I’m a scholar of Renaissance drama. Reading, seeing, performing, adapting, teaching, and writing about Shakespeare’s plays is a major part of my job. I love my job, but I’m already sick of the #Shakespeare400 celebrations. This particular phenomenon seems to have a kind of mollifying magic that is especially concerning in a year when Hamilton and the presidential election have so successfully reminded us to consider historiography, or how stories get told.
Somehow, it’s become unfashionable to think critically about what Shakespeare has come to mean in the twenty-first century.
This particular story says that Shakespeare is the greatest playwright in the English language, if not ever in the world. If you don’t agree, the story goes, either you’ve never seen him done “right” or there’s something wrong with you. Like most of Donald Trump’s stories, it’s demonstrably false. Nevertheless, the Shakespeare narrative is remarkably persistent in the face of assaults both well-founded (e.g., Andy Kesson’s excellent blog post on Shakespeare-centrism) and not so well-founded (e.g., the authorship “debate”). Somehow, it’s become unfashionable to think critically about what Shakespeare has come to mean in the twenty-first century.
That’s hardly surprising when one of the most prominent supporters of the Shakespeare myth is the former Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe, Dominic Dromgoole. In his farewell to the Globe, published by The Guardian on April 23, Dromgoole spouts his particular brand of Bardolatry: “Many still like to imbibe their culture within carefully protected class enclaves, and the free and easy way in which the Globe explodes that, now as it did 400 years ago, is one of the principal reasons for its galvanising energy.” The supposed openness of Shakespeare’s Globe is something that Dromgoole constantly hammers home, but he forgets that the cost of a ticket to see theatre 400 years ago was out of reach for a huge proportion of London’s population, even at a penny for entry as a “groundling.” It costs five pounds for a standing ticket at the reconstructed Globe today, which is eminently affordable compared to other London theatres but still, inevitably, a financial barrier for some.
Of course, the very assumption that Shakespeare must be accessible to everyone (whereas work by other playwrights need not be) depends upon his status as the greatest playwright who ever lived.
Recent examples of attempts to critique Shakespeare’s stranglehold on both English literature and the professional theatre have been met with some appallingly inappropriate accusations (especially, I might add, when the dissenter happens to be a woman). Take Dana Dusbiber, who wrote a piece for The Washington Post last year about her struggle with Shakespeare’s prominence in the Common Core curriculum for K-12 students and her desire to teach literature that more accurately reflected her students’ cultural backgrounds. Responses were swift and furious. Comments on the post called her “a dolt and a sloth,” “a buffoon,” “lazy or stupid,” and “out of her mind or evil.” Some called for her to be fired. Others panned the Post for publishing the article in the first place. A shockingly, self-righteous response from another English teacher, Matthew Truesdale, was published by the Post later that same day.
Dusbiber’s experience is hardly extraordinary. Shakespeare has been a tool of imperialism, cultural elitism, and oppression as often as he has been a source of progress, liberation, or comfort—just ask the Nazis or, indeed, the English. He wasn’t a particularly political writer—which is part of what helped him gain popularity in the Restoration period—and you can make his plays say almost anything you want. That’s partly why you won’t be able to find his opinions on the current election, climate change, the European Union, or anything else to do with contemporary politics in those thirty-odd plays. Or, rather, you’ll find whatever opinion you’re looking to support. Confirmation bias is a powerful thing, and the relatively apolitical nature of Shakespeare’s plays makes them particularly susceptible.
Look, Shakespeare was a great playwright. So were many of his contemporaries. So were lots of people born before and since. The point is not that Shakespeare isn’t good, important, or worth thinking about. Instead of blithely jumping on the #Shakespeare400 bandwagon, let’s challenge ourselves to think more critically and more carefully about what it means to continue reifying a dead English dude who wrote some plays 400 years ago at the expense of both his contemporaries and ours.