Stephen Hayes, one of the organizers and resident web-tech geniuses at Shake38.com, emailed me the other day to call my attention to this BuzzFeed article, entitled “Why I Hate Shakespeare.”
“Would you like to write a response to it?” he asked.
I read the piece, which in my view summed up pretty handily the many objections to Shakespearean fare; to wit, that Shakespeare is dull to read, difficult to understand, tedious to study, and teeming with racism, sexism, royalism, and other isms that nauseate the soul and offend the five senses. I was eager to join the argument, since I find Shakespeare neither dull, difficult, nor tedious, and since I think all of those isms make for some rollicking good evenings in the theatre. I brought forth a counter-statement, conceived in erudition and dedicated to the proposition that Shakespeare was meant to be seen, heard, and experienced rather than read in middle school. Just as I was set to publish my thoughts on this very page, I thought I should re-read the article, just to make sure I’d covered the finer points.
That’s when I saw it. Or rather, saw them.
The comments. Oh, my dear friends, the comments this little post inspired. You’d think this woman had punched Jesus in the nose, clubbed a labradoodle, and wiped her bum with an American flag all at the same time. Now to be fair, a number of people respectfully shared their thoughts on why they actually liked Shakespeare, and left out the vitriol. But an alarming number of posts were a great deal more mean-spirited. Some took the lofty approach of a disappointed parent:
“I think it’s a terrible shame you feel that way.”
“I honestly feel sorry for you.”
“’How poor are they that have not patience!’ – Othello.”
Others attacked the author’s intelligence:
“. . . if you’re going to write an article taking on the most famous English-language writer in history, you should be armed with a little more than being forced to use Sparknotes [sic] one time and a surface-level reading of Taming of the Shrew.”
“Well, you definitely don’t sound like someone who is actually that familiar with Shakespeare or ever really taken the time to grapple with the text at all, or actually WATCH actors perform it. Your argument essentially boils down to ‘it’s hard to read and some of the characters and plots are sexist.’ Wow, you really tapped the well of innovation dry there! Definitely never heard that before from every first-semester college student taking an entry-level Critical Theory class.”
“You sound like many of my students; ACTING students just stating [sic] out on their artistic journeys. They are young – like you, ignorant of dramatic history – as the thrust of your argument leads me to believe you to be, and often they look at dramatic writing the wrong way – which you are certainly doing.”
And others were downright nasty:
“I’m genuinely surprised that it took 6 whole paragraphs for you to reveal the real reason you hate Shakespeare. From the moment I saw this, I knew the reasoning would be some feminist, classist baloney that somehow, offended your sensibilities.”
“You had a lousy and lazy sixth grade teacher, who probably didn’t understand the material.”
“I think it’s a shame that you’re obviously admitting you’re not intellectually capable, and simultaneously blaming it on the greatest writer in western literature. You don’t hate Shakespeare; you hate yourself and your limited capacity for challenging literature. None of your claims are actually about Shakespeare; they’re about your experiences, and like many people of limited intellect, you’re projecting your own weaknesses and limitations onto others. So…good job. This is why you write for Buzzfeed instead of having an actual job.”
“Oh no, it’s too hard to read and it’s sexist in parts. Boo Fuckity Hoo. If you want to miss out on some of the greatest stories ever written because Old English hurt’s your brain, fine. More for us.”
“How can you not enjoy Shakespeare? Sometimes, and I’m not sure that you’re [sic] minuscule brain will understand this, you have to look past the sexism of the period that a book or play was written in [sic], to fully appreciate the play. Now, sexism is terrible, and the world would be lots better without it, but if you cannot look past that to see the work of a true genius, than I guess you will never be able to see the genius of Shakespeare. For that, I am sorry, but hey, if you don’t like it, there are millions of people throughout history who have found genius in the bards [sic] work, and if you’re not one of us, then that’s your loss, not ours.”
“The article is ignorant and pathetic.”
“What an ignoramus.”
“You are really really dumb. For real.”
Now friends, disagree as I do with the BuzzFeed author’s original position, I can’t bear to align myself with these vicious, nasty, spiteful little posters. They’re on my side, yes, but they’re so stupidly on my side that I think I might want to switch teams. I’d like to stand for a more nuanced position than “Boo Fuckity Hoo.”
Shakespeare hatred has a long history, and has been led by some fairly amazing, intellectual, brilliant people. Voltaire referred to Shakespeare’s works as an “enormous dunghill.” Tolstoy thought they were “Crude, immoral, vulgar, and senseless.” Darwin, like the author of the article, found Shakespeare unbearably dull, and George Bernard Shaw disliked Shakespeare so much that he wanted to dig up the Bard’s bones in order to throw stones at them. That’s a prestigious group of “ignoramuses,” and they’re only the beginning. Hundreds of famous authors, philosophers, statesmen, and even kings have gone on record as Shake-haters. Even some actors have dared to demur. When Clark Gable was being considered for the role of Romeo in the 1936 film of Romeo and Juliet, he said, “I don’t look Shakespeare. I don’t talk Shakespeare. I don’t like Shakespeare, and I won’t do Shakespeare.” Even J.R.R. Tolkien disliked the playwright, though he apparently said he hated Shakespeare “cordially.” Lord of the Rings, anyone?
Which is to say, just because you don’t like Shakespeare doesn’t mean you’re dumb. Or ignorant. Or self-hating, pathetic, weak, lousy, lazy, or easily offended. All it means is that Shakespeare doesn’t appeal to you, like beets don’t appeal to me. Amidst a sea of Shakespeare devotees, you are like Jaques in As You Like It – you had as lief be yourself alone. And – like Jaques – you offer a perspective that is essential: you see the world differently than we do. If Shakespeare was trying to do anything, he was trying to capture all of us – the lovers, the haters, the wise, the foolish, the powerful, the poverty stricken. “The full stream of the world.” Those of us who love him, love him in part because he never stooped to calling his characters dumb, he never belittled their intellectual capacity, he never mocked them. He simply put them into stories, and made them live. His heart was enormous, and his empathy deep. Instead of hurling epithets across the superhighway, maybe those aggressive posters would do better trying to emulate the man they seek to defend. Because right now, if you ask me, Shakespeare and the BuzzFeed writer have the high ground.
As one commenter beautifully put it,
“I LOVE Shakespeare. You HATE Shakespeare. I don’t care. Let’s be best friends!!”