Saturday, September 1, 2012

It's Okay Not to Like Shakespeare

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.


  1. Hi, Melinda,

    I think the problem--and I have always thought so--is that too many people approach Shakespeare as literature when he is drama. It is a simple fact that his plays were meant to be seen and heard and not read. They should never be taught in literature class in my opinion. Theatre and literature are related but they are not the same art at all.

  2. Very true. However, I still haven't much enjoyed the stage plays or movies of Shakespeare that I've seen. Except, of course, "The Complete Works of Shakespeare, Abridged," which rather defeats the point. I quite liked the opera version of Othello, but it wasn't so much about the words. I have yet to see Macbeth with Patrick Stewart. Maybe that'll be the one that changes my mind.

  3. What about his poetry? a personal favorite is Sonnet LVI, I enjoy Venus and Adonis as well. Do you feel the same about him in that regaurd? I confess that his work can be a challenge both to read and understand, but so much of it fills my soul. When I read it I am not caught up in trying to uncover each meaning behind each word that was origionally the intent.. I rather just try to understand it for myself, and enjoy in his turn of phrase. I am not a fan of how professors are filled with so much egotism that they think only their understanding is correct. I was reading Dante and to this day feel that my interpretation of a particular part is correct. :) I got a B in the damn class because I refused to cave to those who know more.
    Words, words... they sing me to sleep at night.. they float in front of me as I walk down the street.. I hear them in the wind... I see them in the ambers of a dying fire... I love words. A piece of writing to me is the oposite... it is not good unless I have to go to the dictionary.

  4. I haven't read much of his poetry, but I'm not a big poetry fan to begin with.

    I'm glad you didn't cave to those English teachers! The beauty of symbolism--and any literature or poetry, really--is that it can mean different things to different people. As a writer, I find it amazing what meanings readers and critiquers can draw from innocent bits of my work--bits I didn't mean to infuse with any sort of deep symbolism. It's all about what the work means to the individual. I'm glad you take such joy from Shakespeare.

    And I love your description of words: "They sing me to sleep at night...they float in front of me as I walk down the street. I hear them in the wind...I see them in the embers of a dying fire." Beautiful.

    1. My spelling is atrocious at times.. and I do often write first and think later... The curse of these instant messeges, or my distracted mind!? Amber works as well, but phrased slightly different; I see them in the amber of a dying fire.. I spend far too much time thinking about flyaway things.

  5. I promise that this is the last I shall say on the matter of Shakespeare... I am not an expert or a professor, just a lover of his work, primarily his poetry. I believe he was a poet who wrote plays, not a play write who wrote poetry. He wrote with a poets heart and a poets ear. The meaning for me is often found not in a single line, or word, but in between. I am sad to hear of your aversion, but not everyone looks upon the same face and sees a person of beauty. You write beautiful prose, and I enjoyed your poem about Rapunzel. I found it odd that you do not enjoy something that you do well. I am not a fan of most poetry, but Shakespeare and you are the exception.

  6. Thank you very much, especially for the comment about my Rapunzel poem. I don't have an aversion to poetry. It's just not--generally--my favorite thing to read. I agree that there is some very beautiful, very powerful poetry out there. Maybe I'll have to give the Bard's poetry another try. Any suggestions in particular?