I have a confession to make: I hate Shakespeare.
Well, truthfully, I don’t hate Shakespeare, I hate reading Shakespeare. I feel, and have always felt, that Shakespeare isn’t meant to be read. These are plays, after all — they’re meant to be performed and observed. Those who know me off the internet might be sick of this comparison by now, but reading Shakespeare is honestly like literature students 500 years from now reading the script for Die Hard or Jaws and trying to get a critical analysis from it. Except that might actually be possible since Jeb Stuart and Peter Benchley (the screenwriters for Die Hard and Jaws respectively) actually included action cues in their screenplays so you’re still capable of knowing what is going on outside of the dialogue. Which reveals my true gripe about reading Shakespeare: There is very little to go off of that isn’t dialogue. There aren’t even cues for how a line of dialogue is meant to be read. Add in the fact that the average person, including the all mighty lit major, isn’t exactly fluent in Elizabethan English and, well, it’s not hard to see why Shakespeare is required for most literature programs and not optional (because no one would take it otherwise).
“But why is Shakespeare so important to begin with,” I’m sure every Lit major has asked at least once in their academic career. First: thank the Romantics. During the early 19th century, Shakespeare’s plays were beginning to be so over done on the stage (with those damn costumes, sets, and sound effects) that the Romantic poets and critics (the original hipsters) began to spread the idea that in order to “truly” understand Shakespeare, one must read his plays rather than watch them. Were they wrong? Not entirely. There is a group called Actors From the London Stage who utilize this same ideology. Each play casts only five actors, no set dressings, and minimal costuming. The result is mind blowing. When you strip away the costumes and the set dressing, focusing only on the actors and the performance, you really can see why Shakespeare is so popular. After experiencing a stripped down performance, it becomes a bit easier to appreciate the great bard. But, this is still approaching the work the way it was meant to be consumed: through performance. Due to Shakespeare’s lack of action or dialogue cues, reading a Shakespeare play without having ever experienced it performed puts the reader at a severe disadvantage. If you’re not accustomed to reading Elizabethan English, trying to decipher what is being said while also trying to make out what exactly is supposed to be happening results in even the most dedicated of students zoning out and not absorbing any of what they had just read. Unfortunately, most literature departments are a bit slow in adapting to the current times (which really shouldn’t be a surprise since most of us who hold degrees in literature or English still read physical books, study dead dialects, and have our heads firmly planted in the past), and, because of this, still blindly hold on to the Romantic mindset when it comes to Shakespeare. Which is why you, my darling, fresh faced lit majors, are still required to read Shakespeare rather than watch it.
This does not however, mean that I think Shakespeare isn’t important when it comes to literature, which brings us back to the original question: Why do we still study Shakespeare? Well, other than the wonderful Romantics (can you tell that I have a very strong love/hate relationship with them?) there are three reasons that I have personally come to for why Shakespeare is required knowledge for literature majors:
If you aim to become an expert in any field, it’s always smart to know the history of that field. In knowing who came before you and how they attributed to your field, you will be better equipped in contributing to the field yourself. When you know what has already been done you’ll know how to build off of that and form your own path in the field. It’s also important just to know how your field has grown and been shaped over the years in order to become what it is today. For literary analysis, that means not only knowing the history of literary analysis, but also the history of literature itself.
Though, this doesn’t entirely answer why Shakespeare. There were other published and successful writers during the Elizabethan era, namely Christopher Marlowe, who was also a playwright, and the poet, Sir Thomas Wyatt, who is said to have been the first English poet to use the sonnet form. Granted, Marlowe died young (29) and had only written seven plays at the time of his death, plus his most famous play, Doctor Faustus, is unfortunately only second in the Faust adaptations, Goethe’s work being the more well known of the two. As for Wyatt, though, from what I’ve interpreted, he wasn’t very shy about his writing and study of literature, his work wasn’t actually published until fifteen years after his death, which might explain his diminished popularity (though his time in the Tower of London for “allegedly” having an affair with Anne Boleyn couldn’t have helped his reputation either). At the end of the day, however, Shakespeare wrote a total of 37 plays in his lifetime, plays that were regularly performed. No other writer, playwright or otherwise, came anywhere near this number, making Shakespeare, arguably, the most accessible of the Elizabethan writers.
2. Literary References
Because of his breadth and popularity, it is difficult to not cross paths with a Shakespeare reference as a literature student. From T.S. Eliot to Aldous Huxley, you will more than likely find yourself with at least one reference to Shakespeare per semester. And believe it or not, Shakespeare references don’t stop at literature, they’re in films, music, and even Disney. Like it or not, Shakespeare is a very strongly ingrained part of the English speaking culture. Hell, just look at wikipedia’s list of references to Ophelia; not the play, Hamlet, but the single character, Ophelia. The amount of times you will come across a title, quote, or story line that directly references Shakespeare makes learning Shakespeare important.
Now, before anyone says, “but why is that important?” or “what if the author just liked that name/phrase?” No. Just. No. If you want to study literature, or even writing and storytelling for that matter, you need to dump that mindset now and hard. Make it cry into a gallon of ice cream and netflix binge watching. If an author references something it is for a reason, and that reason is to make you think about what is being said a bit deeper than you initially would. If an author references Hamlet, consider why. What is the author trying to say by bringing up Hamlet? I guarantee you it’s not because that’s his favorite Shakespeare play.
3. The Human Experience
Let’s go back to the Romantics and the Actors From the London Stage. There is a reason the Romantics decided to remove Shakespeare’s stories from the over the top stage performances, why that same method works so well for those London stage Actors, and, hell, why Shakespeare has stuck around as long as he has in general: Because when you strip away details of Shakespeare’s work you’re left with stories that are as universal and timeless as the Grimm fairy tales.
Take Hamlet for instance: strip away the setting, the time period, and the character’s various titles, and what you’re left with is a story about a man who returns home for his father’s funeral only to discover that there is more to his father’s death and descends into madness while trying to avenge him. Though it’s one of my least favorite Shakespeare plays (OH. MY. GOD. The soliloquies! I could strangle myself with those soliloquies!), there is a reason why Hamlet is so iconic within our culture: it’s a story about lies, intrigue, madness, and deceit, but, more importantly, Hamlet, at it’s core, is about people dealing with tragedy. This can be said about every Shakespeare play, at the end of the day, they are simply stories about people being people.
Admittedly, when I first graduated high school and entered into college, I detested Shakespeare and was not shy about it. Whenever his name came up I rolled my eyes in disgust. It wasn’t until after I had finished my AA and went back to school for my BA (a full four years after high school) that I finally started to appreciate Shakespeare as a storyteller. But, I’ll say this here and now, it wasn’t reading Shakespeare that brought about this change. It was watching the plays performed by the Actors From the London Stage that finally opened my eyes. The first performance I went to, I did so begrudgingly. My Shakespeare professor was offering extra credit to anyone who went to the performance, and since that professor was notoriously bullheaded when it came to Shakespeare, I needed all the help I could get. So, I dragged my friend, Nich, along with me to see Othello, entirely prepared to be equal parts bored and confused. Admittedly, watching five actors play approximately twenty characters simultaneously took a bit of getting used to, but by Desdemona’s death I was holding back tears amongst the moved to silence audience, and as the play ended I was one of the first to stand during the standing ovation. I — a not at all closeted Shakespeare naysayer — was cheering for a Shakespeare performance enthusiastically. And Nich and I have done our best to show up every time the Actors From the London Stage come back to UTSA.
I say all of this because, as long as there will be literature degrees, there will be Shakespeare classes, and those classes will most likely be required, meaning they will be full of students who don’t want to be there. But I assure you, my darling, fresh faced lit majors, there is a purpose in being, at the very least, familiar with Shakespeare, and, if you can find a way to strip the play down to its base, you’ll find a timeless story about people being people. So, while it may be boring, tedious work, it has its merits. At least it’s not Chaucer in Middle English.