As an English major, I always shock people when I let it slip that I’m not head over heels for William Shakespeare. But, let’s be real, is there really anything that special about the Bard?
Shakespeare is arguably the most well-known writer in the English language. Just ask a non-English major to name some writers, and they’ll probably run out after Shakespeare and J. K. Rowling.
At many universities, including my own, English majors are required to take at least one course devoted to Shakespeare. This is the case in many high schools, as well. In fact, it is extremely rare to find a high school graduate who hasn’t read (or was supposed to have read) at least one play by Shakespeare.
But why? Why are we so obsessed with this guy? Some people devote their entire lives just to studying Shakespeare. Why? I’m here to argue that—while Shakespeare is certainly important—no more time should be spent focused on him than on Dante or Milton or Fitzgerald or Steinbeck or Dickinson.
First of all, he wasn’t very original. He wrote almost 40 plays, and only two were his original ideas. The rest of his plays were rewrites of old stories or other plays. While I’ll certainly acknowledge that it takes a great amount of skill to write a play—original or not—why aren’t we spending more time focused on writers who actually came up with their own ideas?
On top of that, I truly believe that we should experience art via the artist’s intended medium. Shakespeare expected his audience to watch his work, not read it. He worked very closely with the theater company that employed him. This means that he knew which actors would play the roles he wrote, and he was able to verbally provide stage directions during rehearsals. (Stage directions in his scripts were scarce.) Therefore, there are so many facets to Shakespeare’s work that we, in the 21st century, cannot possibly experience. This is simply because we were never intended to.
His plays were supposed to be viewed and enjoyed by 1590’s English folk, not torn apart line by line by English teachers four centuries later. And they were certainly not written to be reinterpreted by Kenneth Branagh.
As I mentioned before, I’m not saying Shakespeare should be disregarded, just that he shouldn’t be idolized. And this is my humble opinion. Feel free to disagree with me.
But also feel free to hit your English professor with these facts the next time you have to read Othello or King Lear.