For 250 years Shakespeare has been central to the Western literary canon. No other writer of any land or age has enjoyed popularity and renown on such a colossal and astounding scale.
Shakespeare is considered the greatest of all dramatists. Hundreds of editions of his plays have been published, including translations in all major languages. He is the most widely quoted author in history, and his plays have probably been performed more times than those of any other playwright. Academics have written thousands of books and articles about his plots, characters, themes, and language.
But, as entertainment or literature, I don’t care for him, and never have.
In his own day, Shakespeare’s work was appreciated and esteemed, and as a theater owner he became wealthy. But he was not the superman—”the Immortal Bard”—that subsequent adulation has made of him.
His reputation took off around 1769; actor David Garrick apparently had a great deal to do with it.
One cannot help but wonder whether simple affectation plays a significant role in perpetuating Shakespeare’s stupendous status.
How many people really know him, read him, and attend performances of his plays? Does Shakespeare genuinely move most people? Is his reputation wholly deserved, or partly the result of a mutually reinforcing “Shakespeare establishment”?
Mark Twain’s definition of a classic was “something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” A Shakespeare classic is a play you can safely avoid seeing or reading because no one else will own up to not having seen or read it either.
I am not utterly alone in my anti-Bardolatry. Important Shakespeare skeptics have included Alexander Pope, Voltaire, Lord Byron (“Shakespeare’s name, you may depend upon it, stands absurdly too high, and will go down”), George Bernard Shaw (who coined the term “Bardolatry”), and Jewish philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.
“During the course of his life,” we are told, “Tolstoy read Shakespeare in Russian, German, and English, but he never found a translation or an edition that convinced him that the Bard was anything more than a bombastic hack.”
Wittgenstein wrote: “I am deeply suspicious of most of Shakespeare’s admirers,” adding, when “I hear expressions of admiration for Shakespeare made by the distinguished men of several centuries, I can never rid myself of a suspicion that praising him has been a matter of convention.”
See Erin Sullivan, “Anti-Bardolatry Through the Ages—or, Why Voltaire, Tolstoy, Shaw, and Wittgenstein Didn’t Like Shakespeare” (2007).
Why I Don’t Like Shakespeare
The Plays are Boring
Ultimately, I dislike Shakespearean drama because the plays do not touch me, move me, or interest me.
My idea of a good Shakespeare play would be a movie, not 3- or 4-hours worth of poetry recitations. And if I did desire to attend a poetry recitation, I’d prefer Tennyson—Idylls of the King, perhaps.
Truthfully, the film version of Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons (1966-British) starring Paul Scofield as Thomas More and Robert Shaw as Henry VIII is close to what my idea of a Shakespeare play should be.
The Question of Political Correctness
In general, my dislike for Shakespeare has little to do with race or politics.
Nevertheless, updating or making storylines or settings “hip” or “relevant” in various ways, casting females in male roles (as early as 1899 Jewish actress Sarah Bernhardt played Hamlet), inappropriately casting nonwhites, and countless other methods of injecting propaganda into the dramas provides ample justification for skipping contemporary productions.
Elites ultimately chose radical reworkings such as these over simply tossing the plays onto the white cultural ash heap.
A high school English teacher fashionably hinted in the pages of the New York Times in 1988: “In an age of re-evaluation of the so-called classics, texts that glorify monarchy, sexism, patriotism and charity [sic], one wonders why Shakespeare still maintains a privileged status in American high schools.”
Of course, in Elizabethan times there were no actresses, so all women’s parts were acted by boys, whose lithe figures and unchanged voices made them ostensibly suitable as substitute females. So there were problems from the beginning.
Leaving modernism aside, drama critic Ivor Brown believed Shakespeare was ideologically plastic: “By the method of your citation you can make him Fascist or Jacobin with ease.”
Alternatively, CC writer Andy Nowicki assures us that “Most of the Shakespeare canon affirms a conservative worldview,” adding, “Coriolanus is undoubtedly the third most politically incorrect play of the Shakespeare canon, just behind the gleefully sexist Taming of the Shrew and the vigorously anti-Semitic The Merchant of Venice.”
Shakespeare’s references to Jews are typically derogatory; Jews have railed against and censored The Merchant of Venice since they obtained power over the West—The International Jew contains a discussion of systematic Merchant censorship that occurred a century ago.
In The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio teaches his fellow Italian Katherina (“as brown in hue as hazel nuts”) “submission.”
And in Othello, all characters take it for granted that Desdemona is debasing herself with the dark-skinned Moor.
This raises a question: Is Othello a Negro, or a North African Moor? There is debate about this, but a psychologically intriguing view is that of English essayist Charles Lamb (1811) that Othello’s color does not offend us in the reading, but only when shown on stage:
Nothing can be more soothing, more flattering to the nobler parts of our natures, than to read of a young Venetian lady of highest extraction, through the force of love and from a sense of merit in him whom she loved, laying aside every consideration of kindred, and country, and colour, and wedding with a coal-black Moor — (for such he is represented, in the imperfect state of knowledge respecting foreign countries in those days, compared with our own, or in compliance with popular notions, though the Moors are now well enough known to be by many shades less unworthy of white woman’s fancy) — it is the perfect triumph of virtue over accidents, of the imagination over the senses. She sees Othello’s colour in his mind. But upon the stage, when the imagination is no longer the ruling faculty, but we are left to our poor unassisted senses, I appeal to every one that has seen Othello played, whether he did not, on the contrary, sink Othello’s mind in his colour; whether he did not find something extremely revolting in the courtship and wedded caresses of Othello and Desdemona; and whether the actual sight of the thing did not overweigh all that beautiful compromise which we make in reading; — and the reason it should do so is obvious, because there is just so much reality presented to our senses as to give a perception of disagreement, with not enough of belief in the internal motives, — all that which is unseen, — to overpower and reconcile the first and obvious prejudices.
Settings and Imagination
Too many of Shakespeare’s plays have Latin European settings—Greece, Rome, Italy, France. I have a prejudice against fictional stories, plays, or movies with such settings, preferring American, English, “pan-Angle,” or Scandinavian locales.
No matter. Shakespeare does not evoke atmosphere or settings well. You’re expected to conjure them in your mind’s eye, based upon descriptions or allusions in the actors’ speeches.
Shakespeare pedantically lectures the audience about its duty in the Prologue of Henry V:
[C]an this cockpit [the bare stage] hold
The vasty fields of France . . . ?
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies . . .
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts . . .
For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings . . .
Hamlet may serve as an example. Though set in Denmark, it never feels like Denmark.
Vivid sense of place is further destroyed by characters with names like Claudius, Polonius, Marcellus, Bernardo, Francisco, and Reynaldo. Fortinbras, described by one writer as “the cool-headed, balanced Norwegian who plans and acts in due proportion and at appropriate times,” eventually acquires control of Denmark.
The Winter’s Tale is set on the nonexistent seacoast and desert of Bohemia (the modern-day Czech Republic)—which has neither.
Old-time radio achieved imaginary evocations of atmosphere and setting extremely well; Shakespeare does not. Character perhaps, but settings no.
Yet Shakespeare did not play well on radio, either. It was attempted by both NBC and CBS (Columbia’s Shakespeare, aka The Shakespearean Cycle), in 1937, when they engaged in rivalry over the matter.
NBC’s version, Streamlined Shakespeare, is representative. The one-month series starred John Barrymore and his wife. Barrymore streamlined each play to 45 minutes, modernized some of the language to make it comprehensible to the radio audience, and employed long sections of narrative with only the major scenes dramatized.
These compromises demonstrate core problems with the plays: they’re too long, have archaic or incomprehensible lines, and lack much real drama.
The Need for Guides and Handbooks
Traditionally, the 37 plays are divided into three genres: tragedy (Hamlet), history (Henry V), and comedy (The Taming of the Shrew). Shakespeare, who died at 52, wrote about two plays a year; his use of sources would probably be characterized as plagiaristic today.
I own The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, a 2-volume Doubleday book club edition I’ve had for as long as I can remember. It contains all of the plays and poems, but no footnotes or explanatory material.
Simplifications or explanations of Shakespeare are indispensable to the student, and have existed in profusion for at least two centuries, from Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales From Shakespeare (1807), reducing the archaic English and complicated plots of 20 of the plays to simple narratives that children could read and comprehend, to modern Cliffs Notes and Monarch Notes summaries of the plays and poems.
Margaret Webster’s Shakespeare Without Tears (1942) (note the tacit acknowledgement of the problem in the title) is one of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of books in a similar vein. Webster was a lesbian theater actress, producer, and director in England and America. Her 1943 production of Othello starring Negro Communist Paul Robeson in the title role ran for 296 performances on Broadway, the longest run by far of any Shakespeare play there to date.
Interpretive works are legion, indicating it isn’t possible to engage Shakespeare without mediation or guidance of a rather substantial kind.
His plays and poems, separated from us by a great gulf in time, conventions, and language, do not speak directly off the stage or page in classic, unadulterated form. Perhaps that explains, too, why so many odd Shakespearean productions are mounted.
The best handbook of this kind I happen to own is Frank W. Cady and Van H. Cartmell, eds., Shakespeare Arranged for Modern Reading (1936), illustrated by Rockwell Kent, 1,165 pages long. It contains no footnotes.
The editors of the book include every play, plus the poems Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece, and the Sonnets.
For each play the characters are listed, every Act is included, and a great deal of the text is reproduced exactly, interspersed with summary paragraphs by the editors where original passages have been excised. At the end of each play there is a brief “Historical Data” section.
As Cady and Cartmell state in their introduction, “countless people have read no more of Shakespeare than was required in school.” It is therefore necessary to cut “through obsolete or abstruse passages to the heart of the universal Shakespeare,” presenting “a very great percentage of all that is wise and beautiful in his writing” while eliminating “extensive tracts of minor lines and passages” that “have little meaning for the average reader today.”
The English language, and the times, have changed so much since Shakespeare’s day that a glossary or extensive footnotes are necessary to adequately comprehend much of the text.
That’s why A. L. Rowse reissued the plays in modernized English—but without any footnotes or textual explanations—in the 1980s. He was roundly denounced for this by “the Shakespeare establishment” (as he castigated it).
His modern versions were easy to mock by way of isolated example (“Romeo, Romeo wherefore are you Romeo?”), but who can reasonably object to the replacement of “Who would fardels bear?” with “Who would burdens bear?” or “chirurgonly” with “surgically”?
Verse Drama: Shakespearean Plays Are Actually Poetry
Apart from archaism, what is the single most striking feature of Shakespeare’s plays? Surely the fact that most of the spoken lines are (literally) poetry—patterned speech—rather than the prose characteristic of modern plays, movies, and TV shows.
Moreover, it is Elizabethan poetry, which makes it even more inaccessible.
The poetry in Shakespeare’s plays, the lines of which are visually apparent on the printed page, consists mostly of unrhymed iambic pentameter (“blank verse”). Only a few plays, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, feature extensive rhyming.
Typically, only lower-class characters speak prose.
Richard II is the only play written almost completely in verse, and The Merry Wives of Windsor the only one written almost entirely in prose.
To illustrate, in Macbeth, the noble characters speak blank verse (poetry) while commoners speak prose. The witches speak another kind of poetry, which sets them apart—a form of trochaic tetrameter with rhymed couplets:
Liver of blaspheming Jew,
Gall of goat, and slips of yew
Silver’d in the moon’s eclipse,
Nose of Turk and Tartar’s lips,
Finger of birth-strangled babe.
As a Canadian academic points out:
Interpreting plays written in dramatic poetry requires the interpreter to take into account various features of poetic language in order to understand fully the meaning of any particular utterance. It is not enough simply to grasp the literal denoted meaning of what a particular character says. One needs also to attend carefully to the ways in which the various poetic qualities of the language evoke an emotional understanding in the listener of the utterance. This point is crucial. With many characters, what matters is not so much the literal meaning of what they say (or not just that), but the patterns in the language they use to express their thoughts.
Given the massive literature on Shakespeare’s plays, and extensive analyses, explanations, and simplifications of their plot lines and characters, it is astonishing that this aspect of his plays has been so rarely explained or elucidated.
The poetic structure creates a major barrier to easy enjoyment of the plays, particularly if students or audiences aren’t even aware of what verse drama is, or that Shakespeare wrote it.
Contemporary dramatic poetry does exist, though it is not popular. W. B. Yeats, Christopher Fry, and T. S. Eliot are 20th century exceptions who wrote verse dramas for the stage, though they are far more often read than performed.
For a long time, though, verse drama was the dominant form for plays in Europe. The English Renaissance saw the height of dramatic (stage) poetry in the English-speaking world, with playwrights such as Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, and Shakespeare all writing plays in poetic form.
How many fans of Shakespeare—never mind ordinary folks who happen to attend a Shakespeare play or movie—understand this? Do they really know what they’re listening to, even in a basic way?
I Don’t Hate Everything
Just as I like selected Shakespearean sonnets (e.g., Sonnet 29), I like certain passages from the plays, such as the dying John of Gaunt’s famous “sceptered isle” speech in Richard II, which sounds prophetic when read today (note the disparaging reference to Jewry):
Methinks I am a prophet new inspired
And thus expiring do foretell . . .
This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Fear’d by their breed and famous by their birth,
Renowned for their deeds as far from home,
For Christian service and true chivalry,
As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry,
Of the world’s ransom, blessed Mary’s Son,
This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it,
Like to a tenement or pelting farm:
England, bound in with the triumphant sea
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds:
That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
Discrete passages from Shakespeare such as this are more effective when read than listened to in the course of a play as the author intended.
In addition, poems, due to their concentrated intensity, function best when they’re not overly-long—not book length, and not poured forth for hours on the stage as verse drama.
Charles Lamb asserted in “On the Tragedies of Shakespeare” (1811) that Shakespeare is best appreciated when read: “[H]earing anything spouted, withers and blows upon a fine passage . . . It may seem a paradox, but I cannot help being of opinion that the plays of Shakespeare are less calculated for performance on a stage than those of almost any other dramatist whatever.”
Was Shakespeare Homosexual?
It is striking how many homosexuals are members of the Shakespeare establishment—as producers, directors, actors, academics, etc.
Shakespeare dedicated two erotic narrative poems, Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594), to the 20-year-old Earl of Southampton.
He also wrote 154 sonnets divided into two main groups, 126 of which were addressed to a young man in the most endearing terms, the remainder to Shakespeare’s female mistress, the “Dark Lady,” who had dark skin, hair, and eyes.
This raises the issue of whether Shakespeare was homosexual or bisexual.
A 1965 commentary I possess gives various arguments supporting a negative response, concluding, “the best scholars are agreed” that Shakespeare was not homosexual.
One of the most intriguing suggestions is that in the first 17 sonnets, Shakespeare, acting as Platonic pedagogue to his “beautiful” friend, exhorts the young man to marry and beget children. A major argument of the poet is drawn from the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14–30. Shakespeare contends that Southampton is improperly hoarding his beauty by not producing children, who would preserve that beauty for future generations.
In 1973 A. L. Rowse, a homosexual English historian turned Shakespeare specialist, maintained that Southampton, the male friend of the sonnets, was bisexual, but that Shakespeare was heterosexual.
Watching film versions of Shakespeare’s plays is a logical alternative to reading them or watching them on the stage.
In theory, a movie should enhance a play. Film should open the plays up, release them from the claustrophobic confines of the stage, add zest, make them more accessible, enjoyable, and understandable, and, most of all, supply the colorful settings so sorely lacking on stage.
Most filmmakers cut a considerable amount of the material—e.g., 55%. Many of the cuts are common in the theater as well.
But others are filmic in nature: rearranging, reducing, expanding, or interpolating scenes, replacing words with action, and so forth.
Like so many approaches to Shakespeare, however, it is evident that even under the best of circumstances fidelity to the original is attenuated.
My earliest exposure to Shakespeare was homosexual Italian director Franco Zeffirelli’s movie Romeo and Juliet (1968). This is considered an exemplary cinematic version of a Shakespeare play.
The year before, Zeffirelli had directed Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in The Taming of the Shrew, and later he directed Mel Gibson in Hamlet (1990).
As leads, Zeffirelli cast two unknowns, Leonard Whiting, age 17, and Olivia Hussey, age 15.
The two actors were much more age-appropriate (re the play) than had been 43-year-old Jewish actor Leslie Howard or 35-year-old Norma Shearer in homosexual Jewish director George Cukor’s 1936 filmization.
Clark Gable, one of many actors considered for the part of Romeo in the latter movie, responded, “I don’t look Shakespeare. I don’t talk Shakespeare. I don’t like Shakespeare, and I won’t do Shakespeare.”
In the original play, Romeo’s age is unstated, but is somewhere between the mid-teens and mid-20s; Juliet is 13—yes, 13.
When I saw Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, I was too young to really understand Shakespeare, but I didn’t like the Italian setting, and thought even then that the mutual deaths at the finale—made even worse by Juliet’s “recovery” and subsequent suicide—were dumb, melodramatic, and unbelievable.
I’ve watched both Laurence Olivier’s filmization of Henry V (1945) and Kenneth Branagh’s (1989). I liked Branagh’s best. Both movies were exactly 2 hours and 17 minutes long.
In Branagh’s version, the text of the play was heavily cut, and extracts from Henry IV, Part 1 and Part 2 were added.
Though in theory film should enhance Shakespeare, it is an impossible task to transform very long poems in monolgue form into action. It just doesn’t work. Shakespearean films are generally not box office successes; indeed, Branagh’s critically-acclaimed Henry V lost a lot of money.
Shakespeare’s plays are long—Hamlet, at a little over 4 hours unexpurgated, is the longest. Most are between 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 hours, uncut. If you’re not captivated by the monologues, they can be torture to sit through. Of course, material is often cut, but they still seem excruciatingly long.
Many of the problems previously mentioned are applicable to Shakespearean stage performances. In addition, actors often do not deliver their lines ideally—which, admittedly, is not easy to do. Shakespeare’s highly patterened poetic monologues sound extremely artificial.
This problem apparently existed even in Shakespeare’s day, for the playwright has Hamlet instruct actors within the play—sharply—about method prior to a performance in the castle, in a long passage at the start of Act III, Scene II (Lines 1-45).
Hamlet, speaking for the playwright, says, in part:
Do not saw the air too much with
your hand, thus, but use all gently;
O, it offends me to the
soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear
a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings
Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion
be your tutor: suit the action to the word, the word to the action;
O, there be players that I have seen play, and heard others praise,
and that highly, not to speak it profanely, that strutted and bellowed,
they imitated humanity so abominably.
I’ll discuss only one stage performance, that of Richard Burton in Hamlet (1964), since he is probably my favorite Shakespearean actor, it was an actual play not a movie, and at 3 hours and 11 minutes was relatively complete.
The Burton play was directed by homosexual actor John Gielgud (who was of Polish, Lithuanian, and part-English descent) at New York City’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. At 137 performances, it remains the longest-running Hamlet in Broadway history. Eileen Herlie repeated her role from Laurence Olivier’s 1948 film version as the Queen, and the tape-recorded voice of John Gielgud was heard as the Ghost.
Aside from Burton’s own performance, Hume Cronyn’s Polonius was particularly noteworthy and critically acclaimed. Unfortunately, he wore half-spectacles with a chain around his neck, and rather affectedly brandished a walking stick.
This was because the stripped-down production was conceived of as a dress rehearsal, so the actors wore contemporary garb. The set was extremely sparse, and props almost nonexistent. Apart from the inappropriate costuming and spare staging, it was a classic production—pure Shakespeare, so to speak.
There were cuts, as there often are in stage and film productions of Shakespeare’s works. Hamlet is his longest play; by comparison, Kenneth Branagh’s unabridged 1996 film is 4 hours long.
But a movie is not a play, Branagh indulged in what one critic called “stunt casting,” and the time period of the play was shifted forward to the late 19th century. So, in a sense Branagh’s film was “less pure” despite its length. (The longest prior screen adaptation of the play was the 1980 BBC made-for-television version starring homosexual actor Derek Jacobi, which ran 3 1/2 hours.)
A black-and-white film of the Burton production, shot on June 30 and July 1, 1964, was made using “Electronovision,” a method of recording live stage performances before real theater audiences with multiple video cameras and then editing them into a single film.
Incredibly, by contractual agreement all prints of the film were to be destroyed following its limited theatrical run. However, by chance, a single print was discovered in Richard Burton’s garage following his death, and his widow allowed it to be distributed on VHS, and later DVD.
A four-record Columbia Masterworks LP album set by the original cast was also released in 1964. However, it was recorded in a studio, and has so far not appeared on compact disc.
Many speaking parts in Shakespeare’s plays are extremely long and tedious. For Richard Burton particularly, there were many lines to memorize and perform live for more than three hours night after night. Nor was it simply a matter of remembering lines, but of imbuing the character with life (acting).
While watching Burton’s Hamlet, I followed along in the Complete Works. Every actor, including Burton, spoke Shakespeare’s lines word for word. No one flubbed their lines, either. The only difficulty I had was when an excision unexpectedly occurred, causing me to suddenly lose my place and have to search ahead to wherever they’d skipped.
Of Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy, Charles Lamb wrote in 1811:
I confess myself utterly unable to appreciate that celebrated soliloquy in Hamlet, beginning ‘To be, or not to be,’ or to tell whether it be good, bad, or indifferent, it has been so handled and pawed about by declamatory boys and men, and torn so inhumanly from its living place and principle of continuity in the play, till it is become to me a perfect dead member.
Compare his opinion to Richard Burton’s, recorded in his Notebooks:
[A]fter 10 weeks of playing Hamlet on the stage one’s soul staggers with tedium and one’s mind rejects the series of quotations that Hamlet now is. Has there ever been a more boring speech, after 400 years of constant repetition, than “To be or not to be”? I have never played that particular speech, and I’ve played the part hundreds and hundreds of times, without knowing that everybody settles down to a nice old nap the minute the first fatal words start.
Tolstoy thought King Lear‘s death-ridden conclusion was absurd. Again, I thought exactly the same thing about the death-riddled finales of Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet. They’re ludicrous, not tragic.
Having seen Richard Burton’s perfectly nuanced performance in Becket (1964), the film adaptation of Frenchman Jean Anouilh’s play, I expected that he would not violate Hamlet’s stern admonitions to his Players. But, at isolated points in the play, even Richard Burton wasn’t able to adhere to the Prince’s advice.
I’m glad I saw Burton’s Hamlet, which came as close to a classical presentation of the play as one is likely to find (except for the lame costuming and ultra-spare staging), but it did not make me a Shakespeare fan.
I lack Richard Burton’s fortitude; my soul staggered with tedium long before even a single performance was over.
Shakespeare is always an ordeal for me.