Why Shakespeare?

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“Shakespeare is a black woman.”

 

I came across these words written by Maya Angelou in Peter Erikson’s Rewriting Shakespeare Rewriting Ourselves and it plinged the spot in my brain that constantly whispers the question, “Why Shakespeare?”  Why is this claim made by a black woman? Why does a representative of the Reagan administration then misuse Angelou’s words to try to make us believe that class, gender and ethnicity don’t matter?  Why is Shakespeare so important?

 

About a year ago I started my blog Shakespeare Calling and the question I asked in my introduction was, “What’s so great about Shakespeare?” Today, after seventeen play analyses and a number of book reviews, I’m still not really any closer to an answer. The “Monday Reports” with their lists of “Shakespeare Sightings” only make the question more mysterious.  Why is Shakespeare referred to in so many novels, films, newspaper articles and pop songs – so casually, assuming everyone recognizes the source?  And why do so many, in fact, recognize the source? Why are these plays, written within a time span of less than twenty years four hundred years ago, still performed and filmed all over the world in all kinds of languages?

 

Some answers reveal themselves but how good are they?

 

  • Shakespeare understood, maybe loved or at least tolerated every aspect of all humans from all walks of life.

    • Not really true but many aspects.  But that’s what all great authors do. No others have not only survived for four centuries but are still thriving in all cultural arenas.

  • England was emerging as a world power when Shakespeare was writing and it soon dominated the globe politically and economically until the 20th century.  The language still does.

    • Well, yes.  But an awful lot of literature has been written in English since then. Why is Shakespeare the undisputed champion?

  • The language! Shakespeare was a language genius and half of everything we  say is a quote or a word invented by Shakespeare.

    • Again, yes indeed. But…half of what he wrote is incomprehensible to normal English speakers today. And how can Shakespeare be so appreciated in translation if his language is so important? The Swedish productions I’ve seen, for example, lose the brilliant English and they’re still amazing.

  • He’s a genius of high drama and comedy.

    • Sort of. But his stories are often simple to the point of silliness and he swiped most of them from other people.

 

There are undoubtedly a dozen more answers but the questions remain:

 

 

      1. Why has Shakespeare survived all the recent attacks – many of them justifiable – on the English language canon which have tried to break the absolute dominance of dead white men, and succeeded to a certain extent?

      2. Having not only survived but thrived, why does Shakespeare remain the absolute yardstick by which literature is measured?

      3. Why do we want to identify ourselves with Shakespeare and make everything he wrote fit into our worldview? I’m not trying to simplify Angelou’s “Shakespeare was a black woman” or misinterpret it, but the fact remains that even though Shakespeare has been accused of racism, antisemitism, misogynism and classism, Bardolators now include – together with conservatives, stuffy old schoolmarms, cultural snobs, Christians of various flavors, and Ivy League elitists of old – feminists, blacks, Jews, Marxists and just about everybody else you can think of.  And we all say, “Shakespeare was one of us!” Why?!?

 

 

I don’t know. I’ve thought and thought, analyzed and read and reread and I can’t figure it out. To quote Geoffrey Rush, as Philip Henslowe in “Shakespeare in Love” (Oscar for Best Movie – why?! A movie about a playwright from four hundred years ago?!):

 

It’s a mystery.

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Author:Ruby Jand

Ruby Jand has an MA in English literature and history from the University of Stockholm. She teaches history and English at grade school and high school level at the Sundbyberg School of Adult Education in a suburb of Stockholm. Her interest in Shakespeare has emerged recently, developing within the last year into an ongoing project on the blog Shakespeare Calling.

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