What's so great about Shakespeare?

October 14, 2005

Dear Cecil:

William Shakespeare was the greatest English-language writer of all time. I know this because everyone says so. Heck, I even read some Shakespeare back in high school. The hitch is simple — I don't get it. Sure, Willy's plays are timeless tales of love and revenge and whatnot. Lots of people die in them. These attributes are found all over the place, though. What makes Shakespeare's work so much better literature than Tom Clancy's?

Cecil replies:

Shakespeare versus Tom Clancy, eh? I admire you, Mark. You're a bozo, but you're a bozo with brass. What's more, you raise a question that deserves an answer. Fact is, neglecting the handful of fey creatures who claim they grokked Shakespeare upon first hearing "to be or not to be," few people get him right out of the box. The obstacle is his lofty language, much of which can only be grasped with footnotes, and sometimes not then. Since lofty language is also Shakespeare's chief claim to glory — I agree, timeless tales are a dime a dozen — we've got a problem. I don't promise miracles, but if you're willing to invest a few hours in a guy whose reputation has endured for more than 400 years, maybe you'll get a glimpse of what makes Bill worth lending an ear.

Shakespeare was one of the most inventive English stylists to hoist a quill, but for just that reason flirted with incomprehensibility even in his own day — a problem exacerbated, some would say, by his occasional want of craft. Useful instruction on this point comes from the scholar Frank Kermode, who in Shakespeare's Language (2000) discusses how puzzling audiences have always found the Bard: "It is simply inconceivable that anybody at the Globe [theater] … could have followed every sentence of Coriolanus … There are passages, especially in some of the later plays, which continue to defeat learned ingenuity." Kermode quotes Samuel Johnson: "[Shakespeare] now and then [gets] entangled with an unwieldy sentiment, which he cannot well express, and will not reject; he struggles with it for a while; and if it continues stubborn, comprises it in such words as occur, and leaves it to be disentangled by those who have more leisure to bestow upon it."

Kermode thinks that's putting matters too strongly. Me, I can see where Johnson's coming from. Here's an example from Richard III. The evil Richard (R3) says in earshot of the too-smart-for-his-own-good prince (P): So wise so young, they say do never live long. P: What say you, uncle? R3: I say, without characters, fame lives long. [Aside.] Thus, like the formal Vice, Iniquity, I moralize two meanings in one word.

Richard is punning on characters, but good luck trying to figure out the joke. I've seen the two meanings of the word glossed as (1) letters/writing/history (i.e., fame endures without written records) and (2) people/the soon-to-die prince and his brother (i.e., with the boys dispatched, Richard's fame will endure). It's hard to believe anyone in the audience understood this labored wordplay on first hearing it. What's more, the line doesn't make sense in the context of the play. Richard is trying to cover an ominous remark with one that, being mystifying, is even more ominous and thus likely to alarm the prince. I'm with Johnson — we're talking unwieldy sentiments here or, in modern terms, bits that don't work.

So am I claiming Shakespeare's a fraud? No, only that it can take some work to get past the sticky parts. My epiphany happened during my freshman year in college, when I took an introductory lit class with one of the great teachers, a guy named Bergen Evans. One day Evans was lecturing on King Lear. After some buildup about the sense of despair in this play, he read the famous lines: "As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport." The last few words were said with a sort of quiet hiss. I suppose you had to be there. All I know is, I didn't question Shakespeare's genius after that.

The professor being no longer available, the best I can suggest in your case is holing up with a good critical edition of King Lear — you might as well get Shakespeare with both barrels. Go at it with an open mind, and maybe you'll see what all the fuss is about. If not — well, no offense, but don't blame Bill.

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