This may come as a shock, but I've never really liked Shakespeare. The other day, however, I got to thinking about how I didn't like many of the other greats the first time around because—let's face it—the school system introduces classic literature to us before we're ready to appreciate it. I hated Hemmingway in 7th grade. Ten years later I loved him. At 18, I disliked Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. At 23, a different story. In high school I yawned all through Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. In college, I thought I was the most brilliant book ever written. So, since I hadn't read any Shakespeare or seen whole plays or movies since halfway through university, I thought I should give him another try. I thought maybe this time I'd think he was brilliant.
Alas and alack, I fear not.
Shakespeare's work has some nice bits of intrigue, a few fascinating characters, and a lot of excellent lines—profound and poetic at the same time. He has, through some combination of luck and genius, managed to outlast his competition for over 400 years and has influenced art and literature forever. Many of his clever turns of phrase have become so loved and oft-used that we think them clichés now. Shakespeare is nothing to sneer at. But I also don't believe he can be called, categorically and unquestionably, the greatest writer who ever lived. I also don't think that everyone who wants to be seen as halfway intelligent or educated should be forced by cultural mores to pretend they actually enjoy his work.
Though I can appreciate many things about Shakespeare's plays, I don't particularly like them. Perhaps if I spoke 400-year-old English, I would like it more, but I don't. Though I consider myself a good reader and fairly intelligent, I struggle to understand his writing. I'm not talking about the deep philosophical and psychological themes. I'm talking about what's actually happening in the story. I read Spanish pretty well, but when I read difficult work in that language, I feel like I'm missing all sorts of little details and shades of meaning. However, I generally know what's happening. In Shakespeare, that's not always the case. And if I can't tell for sure what's going on, there's no way I'm catching all the nuances that supposedly make Shakespeare so classic, and showcase his deep understanding of human nature. Call me arrogant, but if I don't get it—I who love to read, who have quite a decent vocabulary, who have experience with other languages, and often read a variety of genres and authors—If I don't get it, I have to assume that some of the people who claim to love Shakespeare haven't actually read it.
Many Shakespeare fans believe that people who don't understand him well are just too lazy to do the research and read the footnotes and reread the text several times. They're partly right. But I believe that one of the main rules of writing—espoused by most writing conferences, articles, books, and critique groups I've had contact with—is that you have to keep your reader IN the story. The more your confusing prose makes them stop and reread, the less absorbed they are in your world. If you're checking your dictionary five times a page, you're not living with the characters.
I'm not sure how much of this is Shakespeare's fault. People 400 years ago obviously understood and loved him. I think it's more the fault of our culture that puts a stigma on translating the untouchable Bard.
I love re-reading passages that are particularly thought-provoking, beautiful, or well stated. I don't love rereading passages because I didn't understand them the first time. And I don't think that makes me stupid or uneducated.
So, to everyone out there, I stand by my claim: It's okay not to like Shakespeare. Not everyone likes broccoli or Bach or basketball, though these are admittedly things full of great merit. You can still admire aspects of Shakespeare's work. You can still respect him. But if you don't enjoy his writing, go right ahead and admit it.
Next time on Shakespeare month: "Therein Lies the Confusion" and
"Macbeth, by William Shakespeare. Abridged, translated, and slightly mangled" by Melinda Brasher.