13 May 2022

You Said What About the Bard?

Recently, someone told me what a rebel he thought he was for giving Stephen King a three-star review on Goodreads. "Look at me. A nobody. And I dared to give Stephen King a three-star review. I had to point out that I once wrote a review in a forum that Cell was utter crap. I, too, am a nobody, but as a reader, I have to be honest. And believe me, I'm going through King's entire canon, a years-long project I may wrap up next year.

Years earlier, in a chat room where a bunch of mystery types hung out, Shakespeare came up. I had recently seen The Tempest performed. Now, The Tempest is a great story that's been the template for a lot of subsequent tales, quite a few science fiction. Prospero, the exiled duke, is a terrific archetype for someone powerful cast out of society or even a mad scientist. And why not? He's both. But during the chat, I mentioned, "But I can't stand Ariel. She's like the token female." One could make that argument about Alaira in Forbidden Planet, which sets The Tempest in space, files off the serial numbers, and no one calls Leslie Nielsen "Shirley." However, Altaira, while providing the leggy eye candy many fifties movies required, is an active participant. Ariel bored the hell out of me. The response?

"That takes a lot of balls to criticize the Bard!"


First off, William Shakespeare deserves his place among English language writers. He did more to drag English into the modern era than anyone else, dragging it kicking and screaming into the modern era and away from Canterbury Tales. It also helped standardize English to the point where Pacific Rim countries use English because, as I sit here, there are at least six languages, not counting Russian, from Northern Japan to Malaysia, including several in China. Learning English is simpler. I'll leave the debates about cultural imperialism and colonialism to someone else. The point is, English, like French before it and still alongside it in some places, is an international language.

That said, Shakespeare was a writer like any other, human and prone to mistakes. He was very good at catching mistakes or, like a musician who doesn't have a modern producer interfering with his work, good at exploiting mistakes. He makes the most judicious use of anachronisms of any writer in any language, which helps make his work timeless.

But dare one criticize the Bard? Let me ask you this. How often do you see King John performed. John was a fascinating figure, a tyrant who'd be right at home among the tech moguls, autocratic leaders, and arrogant CEOs of today. But there is a consensus among scholars that Will did not execute his take on the Plantagenet's most unpopular heir very well. One even suggested they liked Mel Brooks's version from Robin Hood: Men in Tights better. Brooks is no Shakespeare. On the other hand, a collaboration between the author of MacBeth and the creator of Blazing Saddles would be hilarious. That's another topic.

The point is that yes, he has earned his place in the pantheon of English letters. So have a lot of writers. But Shakespeare occasionally wrote garbage. So has Mark Twain. And Hemingway. And there's no shortage of people lining up to lecture you on why Stephen King is overrated. Some other time, I may Jimsplain why they're wrong about King, but not today.

So, why would I criticize the Bard? How dare I? I'm the one Will worshiped. I'm the audience. I'm the reader. If he's not connecting, or he's rubbing me the wrong way (Titus Andronicus is a recently read example.), I'm going to say something.

The flip side of that is that Shakespeare's reputation is safe. No one's going to rethink their position because some minor crime writer from Ohio thought that Titus Andronicus or King John are weak plays. On the contrary, because he wrote MacBeth and Richard III and Romeo and Juliet, I can finish up Edward III. (In Will's defense, I think he was brought in to salvage that one at some point, since it was a collaboration.) But not to say anything?

We hold Philip Roth up as a man of American letters, but there is no end of criticism leveled at Operation: Shylock. Looking at King, even King will tell you there are a few books he wished he hadn't published, and I don't mean the violent, disturbing Rage (of which I have a copy.) He claims no memory of Cujo or Christine, mainly because his chemical hobbies interfered with his writing. And the aforementioned Cell was one of the first novels started after his accident. There are explanations, but it doesn't change that two of those books were ordeals to finish.

So, why not the Bard? We love him. We read and watch his plays endlessly. He attracts us whether we love Hallmark or scifi or history. Richard III is the ultimate political thriller. The Taming of the Shrew is a raunchy version of the latest Lacey Chabert offering. The Tempest manages to get remade as a scifi movie or TV episode every couple of years. So, why not come out and say when something doesn't work? Do we not learn from the mistakes of the greats the way we learn from what they get right?


  1. I assigned about a dozen of Shakespeare's plays when I taught, and I either acted in or directed a dozen (many of the same ones) during my "career" in theater. Certain plays don't get performed much, and the main reason is that they aren't very good. A theater where I used to do a lot of work is staging Love's Labour's Lost this fall, and I'm already having nightmares at the idea.

    I agree about King John and Titus Andronicus (Will's most frequently performed play during his lifetime. I call it "the Texas Chainsaw Massacre in blank verse). The Tempest and As You Like It are practically the same play, and the poetry interferes with the story in both of them. Two Gentlemen of Verona is tedious and has a ridiculous ending.

    On the other hand, Macbeth is the archetypal noir story, Hamlet is a great psychological thriller, Othello and The Merchant of Venice confront bigotry head-on, and Twelfth Night is a great gender-bending comedy loaded with rich character roles. And King Lear...!

    Critics credit Shakespeare with having a hand in between 40 and 50 plays. If you take his best five or six, he's better than anybody. If you take his worst five or six, he's a hack. You can say the same about Faulkner, Hemingway, Updike, or just about any other writer. And neither Tennessee Williams nor Arthur Miller has six good plays to put on the board.

    It's easy to take potshots at King or anyone else, especially when you're nobody. While King may be uneven, we can all learn lessons about creating rich and complex characters from him.

  2. Oh, I totally agree - Titus Andronicus sucks swamp water, and if you can make sense of Cymbeline's plot, well, you're on drugs. And I don't know anyone who enjoys the three caskets/courtiers scene in Merchant of Venice. Shakespeare can be criticized like anyone else. Because when he was good, he really was the best.

  3. But there's a whole industry of criticism, both amateur & professional, of novels, plays, short stories, music, art, movies ... why should anything or anyone be immune to it?

  4. Shrew raunchy? Awww. Naughty, I'd buy.

    You're right. We tend to judge each King novel by the same yardstick, but that's not fair. He's probably glad he didn’t publish Thinner under his own name.

    Footnote: I sometimes tend to lose track matching historical events in their contexts and we Americans may not realize Shakespeare was undoubtedly aware of events an ocean away in North America. Shakespeare probably based The Tempest on a current event of the time. It’s thought he based Stephano on Stephen Hopkins, the only person to appear in both Jamestown and Plymouth. (A contentious hard-head with authority issues, Hopkins damned near got himself hanged for mutiny in Bermuda.) The timeline is something like this:
    • 1607 Jamestown Colony founded
    • 1608 Shipwreck in Bermuda
    • 1610 Shakespear wrote The Tempest
    • 1620 Plymouth Colony founded


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