Shakespeare: A Discussion and Review

This might be a weird article, because it’s the one where my geeky pop-culture blog discusses Shakespeare. And after praising a lot of trashy modern works, I might not have much credibility when I say that I’m not a fan of his.

In general, I have a complicated relationship with classic works. I think it’s very important to understand the past, and there is a lot of good that comes from a shared cultural knowledge for modern artists to reference. On the other hand, I believe that most art is and should be ephemeral. Whether it’s for pure entertainment or a deeper understanding of the human condition, a person picking up a book or listening to a song has different needs and cultural touchstones today than they did in past centuries. There’s nothing wrong with that. And while my personal rating system can be arbitrary, the most important thing is how much entertainment I get out of a specific work. (Being me, “entertainment” might be anything from amusement to deep thoughts and new ideas, but it has to be something.) If a story gives me an appreciation for its time and place, then that is a mark in its favor, but if it assumes that I already know the events it refers to, or the language of the time, then I’m not going to cut it slack for that. Half of the works that I give A grades to today will probably be irrelevant in 20 years, and many of the classics that I dislike would have seemed great if I’d lived in the right place and time. I’m ok with that; If I think that art is ephemeral, I can’t expect anything more from the opinions on this blog.

For the matter of Shakespeare, I’ve long found him to be overrated. It’s been my secret belief that a lot of people like him because he provides violence and fart jokes in a form that’s respected as “high art”. How many of the people who love Shakespeare’s wordplay have any respect for puns in our modern speech? How many scholars put up with his plot contrivances, but scorn unbelievable plots in modern works? I know this is unfair of me: I have plenty of friends who love Shakespeare and also have good taste in modern “low” art. But I approach Shakespeare with the same standards with which I approach new fiction today, and I find it lacking.

It also puzzles me when scholars put so much effort into discussing the meanings behind Shakespeare’s plays. Our literary sophistication has increased by leaps and bounds over the centuries, and it looks like people are projecting their modern needs for complex meaning onto simple plays written at a time when people just didn’t think like that. Kids today learn more about postmodernism and deconstruction in their morning cartoons than scholars had in Shakespeare’s day. And while his audience included the most educated people of his time, even their exposure to a variety of fiction, and therefore their ability to appreciate the complexities of the form, were somewhat less than our average teen lining up for the latest summer blockbuster.

Last year I got to see a Shakespeare in the Park performance of Measure for Measure, which I enjoyed. The great thing about Shakespeare is that his stories are simple and prototypical today, and thus provide great actors with great freedom. By the same token, a lot of jazz classics may not actually be better songs than the average pop hit, but they take on more significance when they have a history of talented musicians experimenting with and adapting them. I would happily see more Shakespeare plays by actors of that caliber, despite the fact that the story became more and more ridiculous as it went on. It raised some interesting ideas about the role of laws and rulers, but eventually forgot about them and implied that it doesn’t matter as long as a deserving monarch is in control. At the conclusion, of course, that leader set up a string of coincidences that wouldn’t be up to the standards of a modern gross-out comedy.

Even stranger, Measure for Measure is considered one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays”, because the issues it looks at detract from the comedic feeling. That really reinforces my prejudices about Shakespeare, because sophisticated readers (hell, even South Park viewers) expect today’s comedies to tackle much weightier issues than Measure for Measure does.

It had been years since I’d actually read anything by Shakespeare, though, and I’m writing this post because a couple months ago I finally read two of his plays that I’d never tried before: The much-loved Hamlet and the little-known Coriolanus.

I’m very glad I read Hamlet, because it gave me more appreciation for Shakespeare’s fans, as well as some appreciation for the writer himself. The writing is beautiful. The famous “to be or not to be” monologue, whose opening lines are cliché today and whose latter lines are occasionally rattled off by a show-off sitting next to me at the bar, was amazing in context. I think it may have actually taken my breath away. Hamlet gets almost all the good speeches, and they do a decent job of introducing (if not developing) big questions about the meaning of life. Hamlet comes off as sort of a proto-Holden Caulfield, and it was his character that stuck with me afterwards.

However, my complaints about Shakespeare still generally held true. Most of the characters were two-dimensional plot devices, with poor Ophelia not even given as much depth as that. Now that I’ve read the play, scholarly arguments about the truth behind it seem slightly more ridiculous than Star Wars geeks debating the finer points of continuity. (If you need help with these questions, here you go: Other people saw the ghost, so questions about whether it was “real” are laughable. It’s true that we never learn the truth of the ghost’s motivations, but since he gives falsifiable claims that are later proven, we know that it is largely speaking the truth. We don’t know for sure if it’s really Hamlet’s father or whether its motives are good or evil, but as the text has no acknowledgment of these questions, I consider that to be more of a weakness of 17th Century art than a puzzle with real meaning. Similarly, Shakespeare’s treatment of insanity is so ignorant that I see no value in diagnosing Hamlet by today’s standards.)

Especially irritating is the poor construction of the setting. The corruption and hedonism of the Danes is obviously important to Shakespeare, as it sets the scene and gives context to the murders and chaos of the story. (It also makes the painfully arbitrary ending one that has poetic justice, if no less painfully arbitrary.) But is any of this corruption ever shown? Not at all. Hamlet complains that the king is off carousing, and the king occasionally admits to being weak, but in his deeds on-stage he seems consistently sober and thoughtful. I have little patience for modern books that break the “show, don’t tell” rule of writing, and I give Hamlet no more slack.

So what did I learn from all this? People have different priorities when it comes to literature, and Shakespeare simply doesn’t meet mine. I care most about the quality of the ideas and the plot in literature, with characters and originality playing a strong secondary role. While I’m not blind to the quality of the writing, it’s rarely my chief concern. Many readers, on the other hand, absolutely love well-written prose. I can understand this – after all, devotees of written works are often going to have an appreciation for the writing itself. Shakespeare meets their needs, while I mainly notice his atrocious plotting and inconsistent ideas and characters.

I’m glad I read this and was able to come to that understanding. For my purposes, Hamlet was not a great work, though it had one good character and was fortunate enough to focus on questions that I don’t expect to see answered. The quality of its writing is high enough to touch even me. While still not my sort of story, and deeply frustrating at times, parts of it did stick with me afterwards.

Grade: B-

After finding some appreciation for Hamlet, I had high hopes for Coriolanus. After all, it’s another one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays”, and I learned from Measure for Measure to expect deeper questions from those works.

I was disappointed, though. Coriolanus is problematic not because it asks uncomfortable questions, but because it answers those questions in a way that seems absolutely offensive to our modern sensibilities. Shakespeare’s plays may consistently put their faith in the divine right of kings and queens, but this one goes several steps further in order to show absolute contempt for the common man. It takes place in ancient Greece, a state whose democratic traditions were more advanced than the England of Shakespeare’s day, and it culminates in the city’s destruction due to the voters’ inability to recognize “rightful” rulers.

The title character’s right to rule comes from nothing more than his valor in battle. It never questions whether war heroes are automatically good political leaders; Of course they are! True, it does show that Coriolanus is a poor politician (mainly due to his inability to hide contempt for his constituency), but since it portrays skilled politicians as manipulative crooks, I don’t think the play was really trying to subvert its face-value claims.

Putting it in context, Coriolanus is believed to have been written shortly after riots in England, and therefore it should apparently be interpreted as a direct rebuke of the peasants who dared to question their leaders. (The play even opens up with a peasant revolt that is put down when a patrician explains that, first of all, the protestors don’t know what they’re talking about, and second, that they should think of the state as one giant organism in which some parts labor to feed others.) With me reading this just one year after the United States’ first populist protests in decades, this play feels especially facile and insulting.

Of course, some scholars question whether the poor logic (and Coriolanus’ faults as a character) might be Shakespeare’s tricky way of slipping a subversive statement past royal censors. I find this as silly as the other debates about hidden meanings in Shakespeare: For one thing, as a landowner with a consistent history of deference to royalty in his writing, I see no argument that Shakespeare would be on the peasants’ side. Even if he were, it makes no sense that he would expect to encode a message in his plays that the upper classes would miss but the uneducated lower classes would recognize. No, this play has a consistent pattern of telling us exactly what we should think about each character: Those rioting peasants at the start even tell us they respect Menenius, the patrician who puts them in their place. After that, Menenius goes so far as to explain to us who is good and bad. I think we should take it at face value when Coriolanus says that peasants who didn’t serve in battle deserve nothing from their country, or when Menenius proclaims at the end that their city has earned its fate. If Coriolanus is proud and brings doom on himself as well, it’s in the typical vein of a Shakespearian tragedy. The point of a tragedy is that the victim should be mourned. And given that Shakespeare was just inventing that form himself, I find it doubtful that he was already trying to subvert it. No, the face value argument still holds for me.

Otherwise, Coriolanus is a simple play, without any prose that I found of note. Coriolanus’ character arc is slightly interesting, but does nothing to redeem the story. It offers us nothing today from an artistic standpoint, and promotes a fascist worldview built on little more than the assumption that the lower classes are stupid. I can forgive stories I disagree with if the author argues the point well, but in this case Shakespeare just considers his prejudices to be self-evidently right. Though I was interested in trying more Shakespeare after Hamlet, I will probably stay away from him for a long time after reading this.

Grade: F

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