I recently read Erin Sullivan’s fascinating article, Anti-Bardolatory Through The Ages – or, Why Voltaire, Tolstoy, Shaw And Wittgenstein Didn’t Like Shakespeare. We’re so used to the idea that everyone admires Shakespeare that it feels quite transgressive to read about famous people who didn’t like him and were happy to explain why.
Their criticisms fall into two categories, they either construct a post-Elizabethan theory of art and accuse Shakespeare of failing to conform to it or they acknowledge the plays are good but worry about the status they’ve been given. The art theory critics include 18th century neo-classicists and late 19th/early 20th century realists (the Romantics came in the middle and they loved him). Neo-classical art appreciation was based on ancient Greek philosophy. In his Discourses On Art, Joshua Reynolds said nature is an imperfect copy of a Platonic ideal form and the artist should correct what he sees in nature in order to portray Ideal Beauty, ‘His eye being enabled to distinguish the accidental deficiencies, excrescences, and deformities of things, from their general figures, he makes out an abstract idea of their forms more perfect than than any one original.’
The idea that art should transcend nature applied to drama too and some critics struggled to reconcile Shakespeare’s roughness, in both form and content, with the sublimation they believed art should aspire to. Voltaire described Hamlet as a ‘vulgar and barbarous play’ and Alexander Pope, in his Preface To Shakespeare, could only excuse Shakespeare’s crowd-pleasing vulgarity on the grounds that he ‘had no thoughts of writing on the model of the Ancients.’
If the neo-classicists thought Shakespeare was too close to nature, the realists thought he wasn’t close enough. In a 1906 essay Leo Tolstoy said King Lear is ‘full of unnatural events, and yet more unnatural speeches’. To make matters worse, Shakespeare was popular. George Bernard Shaw invented the word ‘bardolatory’ to describe the uncritical adoration which he felt stifled new playwrights like himself and in Culture And Value Ludwig Wittgenstein also suspected Shakespeare’s reputation of exceeding his work, ‘If e.g. I hear expressions of admiration for Shakespeare made by the distinguished men of many centuries I can never rid myself of a suspicion that praising him has been a matter of convention’.
So where does Shakespeare stand today? Do we really like Shakespeare or do we just like the idea of liking him? The plays are as watched, studied and argued about as they ever were but only half are regularly performed and even the most popular favourites are heavily cut, dressed up in high concept productions and frequently played to ‘geriatrics who haven’t got out of the theatre-going habit…teenaged school-trippers [and tourists who] don’t have English as their first language’. So did Voltaire have a point when he accused English speakers of loving Shakespeare’s reputation more than his plays?