The Mistake of Trivializing Shakespeare in the Modern World

“Romeo Stabs Paris at the Bier of Juliet” — Henry Fuseli

I actually believed I would never really enjoy Shakespeare that much despite my love of Shakespeare movies, old literature, and art. I was duped somehow into thinking that his writing was flat, something pithy with moralistic value but lacking in the fascinating. Rather, his work was lofty with hard to read language and substance only grannies could appreciate. I am so happy I found out I was absolutely wrong!

It all started in a renaissance lit. class that started out as a painful and unique form of torture created especially for introverts but ended up being massively surprising once our collective performance anxiety was annihilated by the ingeniously calculated and gruesomely apathetic approach of our professor. We had to act out a Shakespeare scene in groups, but the rub (point) of the matter is that we wouldn’t tell the other groups our plan, so each scene was performed differently even though we were working with the same lines. Once I realized that what’s going on in Shakespeare, I found it to be pretty fucking far from uni-dimensional. As my interest set in, I made another discover: it isn’t actually that hard to read if you got just a squeeze more time to read the footnotes. In graduate school, even that appreciation seemed measly as I discovered each line could easily contain up to 7 levels of meaning depending on performance delivery. Even the work as literature had vast expanses of interpretation to deliver, making a simple Shakespeare play feel like dosing on mushrooms. Pair that with a stressful power smoking session with one of San Francisco’s senior citizen head gardeners/ top shelf Shakespeare hobbyist experts who grilled me on Shakespeare and put me to glorious shame with his encyclopedic recall of not only Shakespeare’s work but also his life and then I knew I would have a very long and complex future with Shakespeare.

Shakespeare is portrayed as complicated in the extreme or foolishly trite. I wonder why this is when the art is so enjoyable, the word play so rich, the layers of meaning so manifold while being accessible in their painting of embodied human feeling? The contrary depiction of Shakespearean plays as being corny and cliché is painfully reversed since a large chunk of popular culture is proactively framing the work that way with the intention perhaps to lead those who are easily influenced.

But why either over complicate or over simplify? Here’s some of the reasons why people trivialize Shakespeare:

1. Anti-intellectualism

2. The self-conscious impulse: With a nervous laugh and a flustered flutter of eyelashes, there’s an unspoken “If I portray Shakespeare as shitty, I don’t look bad, like an uncultured dumb ass.”

3. Anti-western culture: Woke anti-westerners who want to tear down the lofty heights of the western tradition view the phantoms of racism in every nook and cranny or have a vested interest in making their enemy look like panty-waisted pussies, foppish dandies devoid of edge — the better to draw in support from a large swath of the population who feels victimized in some way whether due to an impulse to mimic mainstream rhetoric, largely the current case, or due to experience, a tragic minority. Their ranks or joined, perhaps, by the young and impressionable, some of which are drawn like zombies to whatever makes them feel cool in the crooked mirror of the fashionable algorithm.

4. People don’t get it because the education system is fucked up, and they don’t want to try to get it because it seems hard.

5. Education is so specialized and popular culture often trivial and thus those who are not renaissance aficionados or humanities types simply aren’t well rounded enough to have the frame of reference to get it.

6. The “Your heroes are dead” argument: The train of thought is why spend time reading the works of the irrelevant dead when there are living authors who need support. I would counter that one can support living authors while still reading author’s whose work has everlasting import for all people. Still, the question that comes up in response to the “your heroes are dead” argument is whether this viewpoint is complete bullshit or if it is valid? It’s hard to tell, but they found an inventive way to talk shit about Shakespeare, so perhaps the commercialized, P.C. crap they’re reading and writing should get more notice — -more like that’s what they want you to think

7. The tribalist perspective: “I don’t identify with western culture and therefore either vilify it or reject it and promote my own tribe’s brand of cool.” Fine and well, but it wouldn’t hurt anyone to be open minded, especially since Shakespeare’s complex explorations of the diverse expression of humanity doesn’t lose its relevance or freshness especially when tribalism is the topic at hand regardless of what a person or group is feeling about such tribalism.

8. Shakespeare’s hard to read. Hey, if you speak English, guess what, so is he, and it’s (early) modern English at that. To be real though, I get it. Early modern English can be hard to read, especially with non-standardized spellings, Latin sentence structure, regional dialect, and outdated slang — again footnotes are your friend, and you might be surprised when you give it some time. It gets easier. Ironically, the language argument against reading works in early modern English easily apply to non-standardized diction in modern English, which is meant to reflect the growth of the language and the actual usage with disregard to the formal rules, but well, people think what they want to think.

9. The “I don’t really relate” argument: You’re a regular person who buys whatever is featured in the stores, watches the same shows everyone else does, and pursues habits that are easy to pick up. You are simply and straightforwardly a product of your age. You grew up eating fries with ranch dressing (as I happily did), and the suburban sprawl has become such a norm that you are in no way alarmed. That’s legit too. However, you might find some Shakespeare an enchanting alternative to the same redundant bullshit, in whatever variety is common to you.

10. Finally, the “I don’t care” response: A good amount of people simply don’t care about Shakespeare and thus have no inclination to read him. That’s valid, but to get any kind of degree in the United States, Shakespeare should be required reading since the study of his genre allows people to think about situation, motivation, relationship, and character. If Shakespeare is taught as the study of situation via performance, I can see young people finding themselves excited about the work. At the same time, if someone is teaching the material who doesn’t really get it or like it, then that mood will be contagious. Hiring committees need to factor in that aspect.

I sound like I’m talking shit, but I too share in the lost time. I too share in the misconception. It’s my reversal of fortune that urged me to reach out to you today. I had the bad luck of not appreciating Shakespeare. Although that was long ago, ignorance that was once bliss grew to be indignation after I had realized my error. I realized that a life well-lived includes a life-long contemplation of Shakespeare. I say that with good natured humor since I realize that in this day and age my attitude may seem bizarre, but Time itself has agreed with me, revealing generation after generation of Shakespeare’s continued power as well as his work’s gratifying and personable applicability to the human condition. I come here not to scold, nor to rankly criticize my fellow man but rather to say that people’s ideas of Shakespeare make sense for several reasons. Nevertheless, I think we’d all be happier, kinder, and more pleasant people if we read more Shakespeare.

With heads full of beauty, what care would there be while roaming the halls of Hell?

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