This article is based on a lecture given to the students of the Southern New Hampshire University Shakespeare course in 2012.
“Why study Shakespeare?” is a question which may seem too obvious to ask. A lot of the discussion around Shakespeare in our society generally treats him as a given, a touchstone of value which we all agree on, and to which other things can be compared. Indeed when talking about other authors, the implicit question in English Literature courses is often “Why study this instead of Shakespeare?” Shakespeare is what we use to question other things, not something we question itself. But it’s worth pausing over the arguments which are put forward for spending so much time on the writings of a glove-maker’s son from Warwickshire who died four hundred years ago.
Perhaps the most frequent argument rests on a notion of literary value. Almost all academics, students and theatre-goers have opinions on what makes a good play or poem, and it was often through our enjoyment of literature that we became interested enough in it to undertake academic study. The pleasure we feel in reading, hearing or seeing, motivates to find out how it works, or simply to sign up to a course of study which will allow us to wallow in this feeling several hours a day and call it work. Shakespeare is the greatest writer in the English language, if not in recorded history.
In fact, he is often praised as more than a great writer, but as a philosopher whose insights into human nature transcend the time and circumstances in which he wrote. Shakespeare’s plays, according to this view, should be studied because they contain timeless truths which will always be valid. It’s not difficult to find these kinds of statements from scholars in the humanities. In The Closing of the American Mind, the philosopher and Classicist Allan Bloom wrote that “Men may live more truly and fully in reading Plato and Shakespeare than at any other time, because then they are participating in essential being and forgetting their accidental lives.” The literary scholar Harold Bloom declared that Shakespeare’s “aesthetic supremacy has been confirmed by the universal judgement of four centuries” and claimed “Shakespeare is the Canon. He sets the standard and the limits of literature”. Bloom (H) offers Shakespeare as the pinnacle of human artistic conception, somehow definitive for everything that came before him as well as everything that will come after him. Both seem to present his writings as a metaphysical phenomenon, a way of accessing a more authentic reality than it usually available to us. Peter Brook went even further, or perhaps just said it more simply, when he declared that Shakespeare is “coterminous with reality.” What Shakespeare is, is what there is.
In its milder form, this attitude underpins the assumption that the regional theatre down the road will put on a Shakespeare play each year, rather than one by Dekker, Heywood, Marlowe, Webster, Jonson or any of the other playwrights who were around in Early Modern London. Or why there’s a Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, but no Royal Noel Coward Company in London. If you want to study Great Books, says this attitude, he wrote the Greatest; if you like literature, his is the most literary. The quality of being like Shakespeare is what “literary” means.
Alternatively, some people take the view that Shakespeare may not be the most transcendent artist in all of human history, but so many people thought he was that he is inextricably woven into Western culture. Working on major figures in English literature, you frequently bump up against their engagement with Shakespeare. It doesn’t take long when studying – to grab a handful of names – John Keats, Virginia Woolf, Samuel Johnson, George Bernard Shaw or Charles Dickens before you need to take account of the very different ways they felt influenced by Shakespeare. In a wider sense, British culture has invented a series of Shakespeares to suit its own needs over the years, projecting its own concerns and anxieties onto its central literary figure. Michael Dobson’s The Making of the National Poet and Gary Taylor’s Reinventing Shakespeare both give fascinating accounts of the way he has been claimed by different political and social groups. There’s been Shakespeare the royalist, Shakespeare the republican, Shakespeare the capitalist, the libertarian, the stern moralist, the sighing sentimentalist, the champion of women’s rights, the scourge of the Spanish, the lover of all mankind, the lover of men. We’ve seen Marxist Shakespeare, classist Shakespeare, aesthetic and pathetic, Ricardian, Stoppardian – Shakespeare the radical preacher, the Sunday-school teacher, the Technicolor multiplex Hollywood feature.
Taylor coined the term “Shakesperotics” to embrace “everything that a society does in the name – variously spelled – of Shakespeare”, declaring that in writing a history of Shakespeare he had found himself investigating “the history of the theatre, of publishing, censorship, journalism, education, morality” and then to “economics, politics, ideology”, the “total and material structure” of societies. For Taylor, studying Shakespeare is a window onto the complexities and paradoxes of cultural history. In this view, Shakespeare is less a man or a collection of plays than a set of identifiable threads running through the weave of a society, so tracing them can help us understand the overall pattern. Or they can be followed in order to throw up surprising and unexpected whirls and knots in the pattern, which don’t fit with what it says elsewhere.
It’s possible to take this one step further, and suggest that because Shakespeare has been such a dominant part of our understanding of ideas like nationhood, masculinity, cultural value and creativity, it’s important to study him in order to critique these ideas. If Shakespeare is one of the sources of authority wielded by those in power, then learning about the history of Shakespeare can provide us with the tools to resist that authority. Lawmakers quote Shakespeare in their speeches, generals cite him when addressing their troops and judges refer to him when giving their opinions. Just in the last month I’ve read a British member of parliament quoting – well, misquoting actually – Henry V when talking about hostile negotiations with Europe, a management consultancy firm offering training based on insights from Macbeth and a newspaper commentary dismissing a sexual harassment case as “just lusty behaviour – in the Shakespearean sense”. All of these are using Shakespeare as a way to present their contingent (and unpleasant) opinions as natural, inevitable and firmly rooted in history. He’s brought in to validate their desires and interests – Shakespeare provides a licence for them to do what they want to other people. This is Shakespeare as a language – the language of power. And we’d better learn to speak it if we don’t want to be subjected to that power.
And finally, there’s the pragmatic – or even cynical – argument that Shakespeare looks good on a resume. You may not like it, you may not enjoy studying it, but it’s widely regarded as a thing that clever people do, so it’s worth chalking up a course in it. We might take the view that, like a Classical education in the nineteenth century, it’s difficult, pointless and requires us to put in immense effort for very little reward. But employers are impressed by people who’ll undertake difficult and pointless tasks for very little reward. So maybe a Shakespeare course is a useful economic signal – “Over here! Pick me! I’m really good at subordinating my own feelings to the grinding toil of modern life! I’ve got a certificate here to prove it!” Or perhaps it’s more of a macho brag – “You think you can beat me? You think you can hurt me? Listen pal, I did Shakespeare to myself in college.” Richard Sennett has written persuasively about the way modern capitalism valorises the instrumentalization of the self, the performance of flexibility in the face of rapidly shifting tasks and crises. Shakespeare could be framed as another crisis in the modern worker’s narrative arc.
Of course we don’t spend our time articulating why we think it’s worthwhile studying Shakespeare, we tend to get on and do it. But the underlying principles will inevitably shape what we get on and do, the ways we do it and what we think we’re left with when we’ve done. And the possibilities I’ve sketched above may all be part of our justification at the same time, to differing degrees or in differing situations. As ever at Quite Irregular, I’m interested to hear other people’s experiences and perspectives: what was it that caused you to take a Shakespeare class, or teach one? When have you studied Shakespeare and why?