Harking back to my blog last week, and the question of whether Shakespeare ever made a mistake in his writing. I have been asked this question or similar ones several times. Do I think Shakespeare is perfect? Are his works without flaw? Was he a genius?
There is a lot tied up with this question and it makes me ask other interesting questions to answer it.
Why is this question asked so much about Shakespeare? Although I have taught many different periods of literature in my career I don’t think I have ever been asked this question of any other author. No one wants to know if Tennyson was perfect, or Dickens, or Larkin or Faulkner or Carter. Presumably students, very sensibly, assume that they were not. So why does this question get asked about Shakespeare? Do we consider him in some way beyond reproof?
Shakepseare’s contemporaries were not afraid to criticise – Ben Johnson said that though Shakespeare wrote without much ‘blotting’ or crossing out, that it would have been better if he had done rather more blotting! Subsequent generations were equally happy to alter Shakespeare’s texts to make them more ‘perfect’ for their audience. But what about today?
Well whilst theatres still cut and in some cases adapt Shakespeare’s plays, academics might be said to have a different attitude. If there are discrepancies in Shakespeare’s plays, inconsistencies, things that don’t add up, then someone, somewhere will publish a paper about it. This paper will often explain the inconsistency as having meaning within the text, as being an apparently deliberate and probably very clever addition to the text. Thus giving the impression that we start from the assumption that Shakespeare was perfect and that it is only our own flaws in interpretation that prevent us from accurate understanding of what only appear to be inconsistencies.
Compare this to Star Wars. There are inconsistencies in Star Wars too. And they too have been studied. Many of them are catalogued in books called the Nitpicker’s Guides. Only in jest does anyone attempt to incorporate them into the story in which they occur. No one attributes them to the scrip writer’s genius.
So, although I think Shakespeare was a great writer do I think he was perfect?