Do we really like Shakespeare?

  • Share on Tumblr

I recently read Erin Sullivan’s fascinating article, Anti-Bardolatory Through The Ages – or, Why Voltaire, Tolstoy, Shaw And Wittgenstein Didn’t Like Shakespeare. We’re so used to the idea that everyone admires Shakespeare that it feels quite transgressive to read about famous people who didn’t like him and were happy to explain why.

Their criticisms fall into two categories, they either construct a post-Elizabethan theory of art and accuse Shakespeare of failing to conform to it or they acknowledge the plays are good but worry about the status they’ve been given. The art theory critics include 18th century neo-classicists and late 19th/early 20th century realists (the Romantics came in the middle and they loved him). Neo-classical art appreciation was based on ancient Greek philosophy. In his Discourses On Art, Joshua Reynolds said nature is an imperfect copy of a Platonic ideal form and the artist should correct what he sees in nature in order to portray Ideal Beauty, ‘His eye being enabled to distinguish the accidental deficiencies, excrescences, and deformities of things, from their general figures, he makes out an abstract idea of their forms more perfect than than any one original.’

The idea that art should transcend nature applied to drama too and some critics struggled to reconcile Shakespeare’s roughness, in both form and content, with the sublimation they believed art should aspire to. Voltaire described Hamlet as a ‘vulgar and barbarous play’ and Alexander Pope, in his Preface To Shakespeare, could only excuse Shakespeare’s crowd-pleasing vulgarity on the grounds that he ‘had no thoughts of writing on the model of the Ancients.’

 If the neo-classicists thought Shakespeare was too close to nature, the realists thought he wasn’t close enough. In a 1906 essay Leo Tolstoy said King Lear is ‘full of unnatural events, and yet more unnatural speeches’. To make matters worse, Shakespeare was popular. George Bernard Shaw invented the word ‘bardolatory’ to describe the uncritical adoration which he felt stifled new playwrights like himself and in Culture And Value Ludwig Wittgenstein also suspected Shakespeare’s reputation of exceeding his work, ‘If e.g. I hear expressions of admiration for Shakespeare made by the distinguished men of many centuries I can never rid myself of a suspicion that praising him has been a matter of convention’.

So where does Shakespeare stand today? Do we really like Shakespeare or do we just like the idea of liking him? The plays are as watched, studied and argued about as they ever were but only half  are regularly performed and even the most popular favourites are heavily cut, dressed up in high concept productions and frequently played to geriatrics who haven’t got out of the theatre-going habit…teenaged school-trippers [and tourists who] don’t have English as their first language. So did Voltaire have a point when he accused English speakers of loving Shakespeare’s reputation more than his plays?


Tags: , , , ,

Author:Andrew Cowie

Andrew Cowie is an actor, director and freelance drama facilitator living in Birmingham, England
  • Pingback: O what fools we mortals be...for Shakespeare | Foolery news for the week of September 15, 2011 | The Shakespeare Standard()

  • S

    You are full of it and should relax. In no way, shape or form should you need to be prepared to justify liking Shakespeare. Posterity has done that. One of his own contemporary writers said on his passing, that he was now not of an age but of all time (which is the most beautiful eulogy one could give anyone). Centuries of people of all ages and places have sanctified his writing. For these few complainers I say, look at yourself, and your command of English. I believe it’s the dialect that gets in the way. And notice how these “critics” never even mention that, while every school kid complains vociferously. And legions of admirers have to consult phrase books to understand it. But then they get it.

    The literary people who knocked Shakespeare were all jealous types and pretty extreme thinkers. Shakespeare covered the territory, in detail and in the large picture. You can also read the sonnets, if you want even more substance.

  • Pingback: The DF Eye on Shakespeare – 04/06/2012 « Acting Shakespeare()

  • Andrew

    Hi Sylvia, I’m ashamed to confess I’m a YPS virgin but I’ve got my ticket for Tim Crouch’s YPS Taming Of The Shrew and I can’t wait to see it! In principle though I’m in favour; modern plays tend to be short so YPS is presenting plays in a contemporary form which might help connect the audience for Shakespeare with the audience for new plays. The downside might be though that it makes audiences, including me, impatient with the full-length, three and a half hour versions. I ideally want to be entertained between 8pm and 10pm which gives me time to eat, get to the theatre and get home again so the 90 minute, interval-free production, which Michael Billington deplores ( ) is perfect for me. I’m still training myself not to leave at the interval after a 90 minute first half at the RSC (not always successfully, I must admit) and watching the last act of anything hungry, needing to pee, with an aching bum and a long, late drive home (because, of course, there are no trains that late) and work tomorrow doesn’t serve either Shakespeare or the audience so, to be honest, if I had my way the cut-down YPS shows would be the norm!

  • Anonymous

    Hi Andrew, I enjoyed your post and comments. I’m not sure the commercial productions with big stars do an awful lot to convert young audiences to Shakespeare, not least because they are so expensive (though I know David Tennant’s Hamlet did bring new audiences in). What do you think about projects like the Young Persons Shakespeare productions? I saw a couple of these last year and the children were obviously enjoying them.

  • Andrew

    Thanks, Tim. I agree with you about the impact Romeo+Juliet has on young people, there are times I suspect Baz Luhrmann has done more to reconnect young audiences with Shakespeare than the rest of us put together! I’m not sure theatre-going has established itself as a young person’s entertainment though so the risk is not just that Shakespeare’s audience may be in decline but that live theatre, with the exception of musical theatre, may be on its way out and Baz Luhrmann’s success in film is difficult to reproduce on stage. We’ve currently got the last Doctor Who, David Tennant, packing them in to see Much Ado in London but while young people love live events and are happy to attend theatres to see a musical, a dance show, a band or a stand-up comedian I sometimes feel as if the habit of play-going might be declining. The RSC use live music and dance in most of their shows and play brilliantly on the live experience so it will be interesting to see if, as we emerge from the realist school of invisible 4th wall theatre, audiences and producers rediscover the joy of Shakespeare’s extravagant theatricality.

  • T. K. Guthat

    Yes I truly like Shakespeare, and not just the idea of Shakespeare. But then I read his plays and poems for fun, so I guess it isn’t a surprise.

    Andrew, your point about keeping the presentation fresh (or populist) is spot on. I’ve taught Romeo & Juliet to high school students several times, and I’m not ashamed to admit that Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet has been helpful. I will never forget the day the students gasped as Romeo drank the poison and one girl actually cried out, “Don’t drink it! She’s alive!” I don’t think I’ll ever have a better day teaching. Presented the right way, I think most can truly fall in love with Shakespeare.

  • Andrew

    Thanks for the comment, Ruth. I agree, whenever we settle into a set style of presentation it’s hard to generate a sense of wonder and discovery but when audiences, particularly young people, are surprised and engaged visually then all of a sudden the language seems to be less of a problem. I saw some great shows a the RSC’s Complete Works festival in 2006 and next year’s cultural olympiad festival looks like it will be at least as good. But I love the fact that there are two unsubsidised, sell-out Shakespeare productions running in London at the moment, Much Ado and Richard III, (I’m not sure about The Tempest at the Haymarket – is it subsidised?) both in modern dress and with sexy, glamorous stars. I wonder if producing Shakespeare under the same conditions that he did, i.e. your only source of income is the audience, not the Arts Council, forces companies to sharpen up their act a little?

  • Ruth Waterton

    I do think we have to be prepared to justify liking Shakespeare. We can’t just assume he’s brilliant any more, or at least we cannot assume that on behalf of others – and I’m thinking particularly about children and young people. What does increasingly interest and occasionally move me is how much we (the English) can learn by seeing him through new eyes, and that’s why next year’s International Shakespeare Festival excites me so much.

Download a free book written by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells about Shakespeare, Conspiracy & Authorship. Download the Book.


24 brilliant poems, inspired by Shakespeare's life and art, bound in an artisan stitched chapbook

get your copy now