I consider myself very “anti-classics”. Which is to say that whenever someone praises the great “classics” of literature, such as Shakespeare, or Tolkien, or the Bible, I have a negative gut reaction. And it’s not so much that I think classics are bad, if only it were it so simple to explain. Some classics are good, some are bad–all as a matter of subjective preference–and to call something a “classic” is simply no recommendation in my eyes.
I have had difficulty translating these thoughts to ideas, and ideas to words. But it recently came up when I went with a group to see a small stage production of Hamlet, and we also had some conversations afterwards. So I’m sharing some of my thoughts on Hamlet and Shakespeare to illustrate my viewpoint.
To be clear, we all enjoyed the play. I hadn’t seen Hamlet since my high school put on a musical version of it themed on Queen, so it was nice to see it again, now with a more developed taste in literature. To the extent I complain about any aspects of the play, I have to say there’s a special appeal in having something to complain about, so it should not be taken as evidence of dislike.
By merit or by accident?
After we watched the play, someone in our group wondered aloud how Hamlet became so great a classic. In response, some of us speculated that it was a historical accident. These things happen! For example, the reason the Mona Lisa is so famous is because it was stolen (link is to video). For the two years it was missing, the media talked up the Mona Lisa as particularly great art–with textual descriptions rather than photos. After its recovery, its fame was self-perpetuating.