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Brooding Over the Bard

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Growing up I was always told about the greatness of Shakespeare and his beautiful stories. I’d heard the names Macbeth, Hamlet, and Romeo & Juliet, and couldn’t wait until I, too could read and treasure his plays. That excitement lasted until I started grade nine and actually read one of his works.

The play was Twelfth Night and I remember feeling confused after reading it. This was the great Shakespeare that I had waited so long to read? I was disappointed. The language was beautiful and complex, but the story was awful. I decided to be patient. Maybe we just started with a bad one, and we’d work our way up to the better plays. I was wrong. By the time I finished high school, I was baffled with everyone who seemed so enamored with Shakespeare.

I will grant you the Bard had a wonderful way with words. He wrote moving sonnets and could make the most mundane occurrences seem enchanting. But I think that’s where the problem lies. We have been blinded by Shakespeare’s beguiling language. What we don’t seem to notice is the drivel he called plotlines.

Have you ever heard Shakespeare’s plays translated into plain, modern English? They sound ridiculous. Take Romeo & Juliet. Two 14-year-olds fall madly in love at first sight. This could happen, as 14-year-olds have always been utterly hormone-driven. However the plot gets a little silly beyond this point. The 14-year-olds are from rival families that hate each other. The kids determine they will be together regardless. A few people die. Love is pledged repeatedly in such dramatic tones that I start to think of Danielle Steele novels. A scheme is hatched to keep the lovers together. They keep passing each other while carrying out their plots, almost but never quite able to discover what the other is doing. There is a faked death, great sorrow leading to an actual suicide, and the story culminates with both teenagers dead in each other’s arms. This is not a great love story. This is a Harlequin romance novel without the happy ending.

Romeo & Juliet is not the only ludicrous Shakespearean tragedy. In King Lear, an arrogant father trots out his three daughters to publicly pledge their love to him. From this inauspicious event, everyone in the play eventually dies, including some poor sap who has his eyes gouged out. Why can’t a story be a tragedy if just one person dies? Isn’t having everyone die a wee bit of overkill?

Shakespeare’s comedies aren’t much better. He liked to use the same plot twists ad nauseam, particularly the protagonist in disguise. What’s with all the identity-confused cross-dressers anyway? Twelfth Night. As You Like It. I think Freud would have loved psychoanalyzing Shakespeare. To make things more absurd, these cross-dressers are not recognized by anyone, including their siblings and parents. Everyone seems to be suffering from Clark Kent syndrome. It was laughable in the Superman movies, so why is it adored in these plays?

After finishing school I thought maybe I was judging Shakespeare too harshly. I figured the material might improve if I got to see it instead of just reading it. I’ve been to Shakespeare in the Park, I’ve been to the famous Stratford festival, and I have concluded that Shakespeare still sucks. The last thing I sat through was As You Like It at Stratford. It was three of the most painful hours I have been forced to endure.

Since that event I have vowed not to waste any more time trying in vain to appreciate Shakespeare. There are so many other wonderful writers out there who deserve my attention.

For all of you Shakespeare lovers, I expect you will disagree with my arguments. However, the next time you see or read a Shakespearean comedy, just try to not think about Clark Kent. If you can’t get him out of your head, then I’ve done my job here today.

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About Susan Portelance

  • What a fascinating and (to me) bizarre point of view. I couldn’t disagree with you more, but we learn a lot more from hearing the views of people we disagree with than we do from talking to people who all share our opinion. Thanks for posting this!

  • Thanks for the comment, Jon. I agree life is more fascinating when we disagree.

  • I suppose I appreciate Shakespeare but don’t so much enjoy it either. Mind you, in general, I prefer current works rather than the classics. I’d much rather read a book that is on today’s best seller list than a Jane Austin novel.

  • Apparently nobody taught you Shakespeare in context, which if your only academic exposure to him was in high school isn’t surprising. There’s a body of opinion which holds that teaching Shakespeare to high school kids is counterproductive, and I do see the case for that.

    Everyone dies in Shakespeare’s tragedies because that was the tragic convention, going all the way back to the ancient Greek drama. If you look at the tragedies of contemporaries such as Marlowe, Webster and Fletcher, you’ll see that pretty much everyone dies in those as well.

    The same goes for the comedies. The preposterous plots and plot devices were part of the comedic convention – and still are to a significant degree in modern comedy – and cinema. Think, for example, of a farce like Arsenic and Old Lace, or a movie comedy like I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, both of which have ludicrous plots that require a suspension of disbelief in order to work.

    Shakespeare’s genius was in the innovations and twists he added to these conventions, as well as in his characterizations.

  • “Have you ever heard Shakespeare’s plays translated into plain, modern English? They sound ridiculous.”

    Considering that’s not the language they were written in, why is that surprising? Have you heard them translated into Pig Latin?

    Is this satire? I am curious since you don’t seem to allow for the fact that it’s your taste that might be wrong rather than the countless others over the centuries who disagree with you.

  • El Bicho, it is a little tongue-in-cheek, but I really do dislike the basic plots in most of Shakespeare’s plays. They only one I really enjoyed was Julius Caesar. I like the history in that play, so maybe I would enjoy some of his other historical works.

    My biggest beef is simply the sheer amount of praise Shakespeare gets, without any real consideration for his plays’ shortcomings.

    Dr. Dreadful, you are right that many modern movies use the same ploys as Shakespeare, but is anyone calling “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry” high art?

  • No, Susan, but that’s not the point.

  • And there have been millions of pages written about the shortcomings of Shakespeare’s plays.

    As far as the histories go, I’d recommend Henry IV Part I, which features one of Shakespeare’s most beloved characters, Sir John Falstaff.

  • BTW, Susan, nice handle.