I never really liked Shakespeare.
Never hated the guy, mind you- downright enjoyed a few of his plays (The Tempest, Coriolanus, Hamlet). Still, I never really could bring myself to relish the bard’s works with the same zealous enthusiasm of the drama geeks and English majors.
With that in mind, you might spare me perhaps a little of the horrified gasping when I ask:
Is it time to stop reading Shakespeare?
And I ask that with all sincerity. I’ve made no secret about my general dislike of the theater and the culture surrounding it, but I’m not here to talk about those guys.
I’m talking about the actual works of William Shakespeare here.
Why still read ’em?
After all, with every passing year, we drift further and further away from those stories. In spite the film industry churning out one or two adaptations or modernizations of Shakespeare’s plays, there’s only so many ways to re-imagine Romeo and Juliet.
Lest anyone accuse me too swiftly of being dismissive of something I just don’t care for, let me bring up how we’re kinda doing this already.
Remember Shakespeare’s sonnets?
Of course you don’t- or if you do, you might remember one or two turns of phrase from the some 150+ the guy wrote. Time there was when the sonnets of Shakespeare and his contemporaries were studied as essential elements of literature. As time progressed, it seems that Shakespeare’s contemporaries faded from the scene, followed by Shakespeare’s less famous (and often just weird) poetry. All of which is to say that this probably isn’t as heretical question as it might first sound. A hundred years ago, it would’ve probably been just as blasphemous to suggest dropping any of the bard’s poetry, yet today, how many even literary-minded folks can recite just one?
Still, the mere fact that we study the guy less than a century ago is hardly reason to drop him from the curriculum entirely. We could make the argument that reason we study Shakespeare isn’t because of enduring quality of his works (most of which you can’t understand anyways) but for the way his themes resonated with the human soul.
Doubt and despair in Hamlet…
….pride and self-destruction in Coriolanus…
…heck, even a story as scattered and stupid as Romeo and Juliet can appeal to us with the whole cry of “If-I-had-been-a-second-earlier”…
But don’t plenty of stories do that? And in more modern language, with more fleshed-out characters, superior visuals, and better stories all around? Granted, any such story would need to pass the test of time, but with the way things are presently, are any of ’em really getting a fair or fighting chance? It often seems that Shakespeare and his works get labeled as being somehow unimpeachable and irreplaceable- though again, that was doubtlessly said of Aristophanes and Sophocles.
But isn’t The Godfather just as compelling as Antigone or Electra or any Greek tragedy?
And I get how everybody (myself included) can feel so much resistance to the very concept. Saying it’s time for us to “stop studying” something just sounds like the most grotesque, book-burnin’ anti-intellectual garbage out there. Plenty of us genuinely enjoy Shakespeare. Our ignorance of the sonnets or his more obscure works (Timon of Athens– I’m looking at you) doesn’t rob us of any true wonder at the magic of Prospero’s island or the chilling gruesomeness of Macbeth. We nevertheless do need to step back for a moment and truly evaluate the situation. Do we study Shakespeare because of the lingering power of his works, or do those works only seem powerful and lingering because of how much we’ve studied him?
And maybe that’s part of the reason we’re so loathe to part with Shakespeare. It’s not just that we’re used to the guy, it’s that he’s practically become an institution at this point. How many jobs would be lost if Shakespeare’s plays were slowly but surely replaced over the next few decades? Actors, directors, tour guides, teachers, academics, Ren-Faire folks- we’re not looking at just some handful of devotees here, we’re talking about hundreds of thousands- perhaps even millions- of folks across the globe whose fortunes are, in some way, linked to the continued popularity William Shakespeare. And as cruel as it might sound- should that really affect our decision here? I mean, the more one thinks about it, the more one might argue that we’re supporting the outmoded works and values of some dead English poet because we’re (1) in the habit of doing so and (2) too invested at this point to quit. Not to open up some intractable debate on the purpose of reading literature (not in this post, anyways) but surely the things we read, study, and recommend should be chosen out of intention, rather than blind tradition.
And it’s not like this kind of devotion is doing anything for Shakespeare at this point either. How many papers and dissertations have dissected each and every line of Othello? How many times has the “mercy” speech from The Merchant of Venice been recited? Can we- in all possible honesty- say that we presently have a deeper understand and appreciation for Shakespeare than we did one or two years ago?
I doubt it.
Maybe a little time apart is what we all need. Give us a chance to re-examine our stories and what we believe should constitute the core of our literary heritage. Give the tragedies, comedies, and historical plays a chance to gain fresh meaning when we do eventually return to ’em. Maybe we could all use a break here- some time for us to stop studying Shakespeare and instead ask why we’re studying him.
And what do you think, dear readers?
Is it time to stop reading Shakespeare?