Great classics

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.

And it’s not that the Mona Lisa is a bad painting or anything. Rather, once we are told that a painting is a great classic, we are encouraged to look deeper, and find the artistic merit that we might have otherwise overlooked. But perhaps there are many other paintings that might have served the same function just as well, if only we had been told that those were great classics instead. Sprinkle in a bit of colonialism and you could convince the whole world that all the greatest art comes from England and France.

But there’s no need to speculate. A few days later, I discovered that Wikipedia has an amazing article on the history of Shakespeare’s reputation. There are so many fascinating things, especially the perception of Shakespeare in China, and in Nazi Germany.  But I should stay focused.

Shakespeare, in his day (1564-1616), was not considered the best playwright of the time, but he was certainly up there. And he stayed there for quite a while. It was in the 18th and 19th centuries that Shakespeare’s reputation really skyrocketed, and in Britain he began to be considered not just as a great playwright, but the greatest playwright ever. It really got over the top. Great actors were first and foremost great Shakespeare actors. People found it irreverent to even compare Shakespeare to other playwrights. There was also backlash, with critics describing the excessive worship of Shakespeare as “bardolatry”.

But bardolatry aside, it looks to me like the history of Shakespeare is more consistent with the theory that he succeeded by merit, rather than chance. It looks like Shakespeare became popular independently in many different centuries and cultures. In cultures where Shakespeare failed to gain traction, it seems like it could be explained by those cultures unfairly dismissing Shakespeare. For example, Shakespeare didn’t gain traction in France until the 20th century, because France was preoccupied with classical theater–as in classical Greek theater–and complained that Shakespeare didn’t conform to neo-classical rules of drama. I like to read that as a cautionary tale about the dangers of venerating old classics at the expense of modern classics.

So how about that? We speculated about Shakespeare, then we read more and decided our speculations were wrong.

But I don’t think Shakespeare’s reputation should change one’s valuation of the plays, as one personally experiences them. If all we ever do is judge literature based on reputation, that’s a recipe for the creation of “classics” that persist only on cultural momentum, or on the opinion of a few cultural authorities.


One of the modern reputations of Hamlet, is that it’s filled with clichés. Not because they were clichés at time of writing, but because the play has been so well-known for such a long time that many of its lines have become so often repeated that they became clichés.

When we were talking about this, the older people in our group took offense, and raised two objections. First, they preferred a stronger definition of “cliché”, referring not merely to an overused expression, but to an expression that has been so overused that it has become meaningless. I countered that many Shakespeare expressions are in fact meaningless. I have heard many times the expressions “To be or not to be” and “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” before understanding what they meant. And now that I do understand what they mean, I have great difficulty imagining an appropriate context to use them for what they actually mean.

The second objection was to say that the lines from Hamlet weren’t clichés, but rather had become clichés. My thinking on this is that if something becomes a cliché, that tautologically implies that it is a cliché. I don’t know… I think they’re just trying to avoid phrasing it in a way that could ever possibly interpreted as casting a negative light on Shakespeare. Whereas I believe it is entirely possible for a work of art to become a victim of its own success, spawning imitators that make the original seem trite or uninteresting. But hey, if knowing that Hamlet is the original source of the clichés helps you appreciate it more, then more power to you.

Although, after watching the play, I think the reputation is quite exaggerated. It’s a very long play with thousands of lines, and only a few I recognized. That makes me wonder if some of these clichés have fallen out of fashion. Or maybe there are many lines that don’t sound like clichés, because they’re just common expressions now. I wonder, when did these become expressions anyway, and do we also have expressions derived from other old playwrights?

Interpretations of Hamlet

When I watched the play, my perception is that this is one of those stories that lacks a clear armature. That’s not a criticism, just an statement about what kind of story it is. There isn’t a single clear cause of tragedy, just a lot of mistakes and bad judgments all around.  Prince Hamlet is rather irrational throughout.  The plan to act mad in order to deflect suspicions makes no sense, and appears to accomplish precisely the opposite of that. Although the ghost only tells him Claudius killed his father, Hamlet totally jumps to conclusions by assuming that his mother was in on it too. And then he assumes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are in on it too. And then he assumes that the man behind the curtain is in on it too, before murdering him. Hamlet seems to be a kind of sympathetic villain.

Although, keep in mind that this depends a lot on the choices of the actors and directors.  If you have a different interpretation, please feel free to share in the comments.

Wikipedia also has another fascinating article explaining the history of interpretations of Hamlet.  They’ve been all over the place. First it’s a story about madness, then it’s a story about a hero in unfortunate circumstances, then it’s about the internal struggles of Prince Hamlet. Apparently, a century ago, audiences took Hamlet’s word for it that his mother was guilty, but feminist critics in the 50s argued that there was no textual evidence for this.

I feel that the history puts to lie the idea that Hamlet is “timeless”. More like, Hamlet continues to be popular over the centuries, but for a different reason in each century. I don’t think this is necessarily a characteristic of Shakespeare’s genius, but rather he was a competent playwright whose style happened to be very conducive to reinterpretation and appreciation across centuries and societies.

And what’s so great about a “timeless” story anyway? Is it that we don’t have to produce quite so many stories, because we can just reuse the same ones over and over again? Is it that the older generation can share with us the same stories they enjoyed, instead of going through the trouble of finding new stories, or having to relate to a younger generation that doesn’t like any of the same things they did? Forget timelessness, how about timeliness? How about stories that are precisely aimed at contemporary audiences?

But of course, we don’t need to choose. We can have timely and timeless stories side by side. So if you love Shakespeare, I’m happy for you. If you don’t, I’m with you too.


  1. tbrandt says

    Orwell has a wonderful essay about exactly this topic (entitled Lear, Tolstoy, and the Fool). If you haven’t read it, you should–he is such a pleasure to read and he always has something interesting and worthwhile to say.

  2. Rob Grigjanis says

    I hated Shakespeare in high school, I think precisely because we were told it was necessary to read; classic. Then, years after school, I started to read some stuff on my own, sonnets first, bits of plays later. It blew me away. The sheer beauty of the words and the thoughts and sentiments expressed by them was beyond anything else I’d come across. The “clichéd” bits were just context-free snippets, like snapshots of an eagle’s feather, or singling out one character from the Dirac equation. For me, some poets come close, but only in fits and starts. So, for me, yes, a genius.

    I’d put Bach on the same level; a vast output of sublimity.

    On the other hand, if you love Mozart, I’m happy for you. If you don’t, I’m with you too.

  3. says

    My browser thinks your link is a security risk, so I instead found a mirror.

    TBH, I cannot see the point of this essay. Tolstoy seems to be inhabiting a straw man, Orwell brings the obvious criticism, and I’m not sure what is really gained in the end. Maybe it would be more interesting if I were familiar with King Lear or Tolstoy.

    @Rob Grigjanis,
    I think I also appreciate Shakespeare more than I did in high school. Actually, I think something that helps a lot is cutting out out parts of the script that are harder to understand, rather than studying them closely in order to guess what the teacher will say they mean.

  4. consciousness razor says

    Maybe you’re a little confused by this, or you’re at least not explicitly taking note of it, but there are a few different ways the words “classic” and “classical” are used in art/literature/music/theater/etc.

    From the beginning, it was understood as simply describing a work of art, that it is in some way a continuation of the ancient Greek/Roman traditions (or thought to be one). This is without necessarily judging its artistic quality. While the Greeks and Romans were highly regarded for the most part, meaning that kind of evaluation was in some cases part of the deal, this can also simply help to explain their percieved influences (however directly or indirectly), making it a useful/helpful description or classification scheme, not an elaborate way of telling us what to like or dislike. This doesn’t need to say anything about how you should think about it, to the extent it’s not assuming anything about how you should think about ancient works. Of course if you knew nothing about them (or didn’t want to, etc.), it wouldn’t be terribly helpful; but having some awareness of past things/events is pretty much the bare minimum when doing any sort of historical analysis/criticism, and I don’t see a genuine problem here.

    Nowadays, if you said that Beethoven wrote a classic, that Melville did, or what have you, then what you can mean is that such works have been influential for a significant period of time. That’s kind of it, and loading a whole lot more into one word is asking for trouble. They’ve had a fairly big impact (for better or worse) on artists and their readers/audiences. It can’t be surprising that some features of extremely influential works seem unexceptional to you or may even seem like a cliché … that follows from the meaning of the words “extremely influential.” But I suppose if you thought for some reason that this was not how “classic” could be understood, since we’re supposed to think it’s more like “Great works with a capital G,” then it would make sense to idly wonder what precisely is supposed to make it so damned great. That’s why a lot of this looks a bit confused to me….

    At any rate, I also really don’t get how it could fail to be a “historical accident,” even if we are bringing some ideas about artistic merit into the party as well. I just don’t get what sort of thing that is supposed to rule out, or in positive terms what specifically it’s meant to suggest (about the work, its creator, humanity, history, or whatever). To me, that would basically just mean it’s not necessary in one sense or another, but I don’t know why anybody would’ve thought that it was to begin with.


    On the other hand, if you love Mozart, I’m happy for you. If you don’t, I’m with you too.

    How about that… Rob and I agree on something. There are a few works of Mozart’s that I do enjoy quite a bit, although of course “a few” does make it a small fraction of his entire corpus. If we’re talking about stuff I’m ever in the mood to listen to, want to hear again and again, etc., then he’s not making it high on the list. Nonetheless, he was without a doubt a good craftsman and so forth. I suppose his reputation as a prodigy during his own lifetime (a legend in his own time, to use a cliché), accounts for a big part of his influence now. That by itself doesn’t really diminish what he did, and please recall that he did all of it at a fairly young age (even the “mature” works), what with him dying at age 35, which is remarkable however you look at it.

    Then again, I think of lots of incredible young musicians out there today, who almost certainly won’t get the same treatment in contemporary society or in the history books…..

    Exhibit A: This version of Triste slaps me in the face every time I hear it. Alba (lead vocals) is about thirteen or so, performing with the maturity of a senior citizen. Obviously, the rest of them aren’t slacking off either, although some are quite a bit older. Okay, I can’t help it — here’s another standard from the same group, this time featuring Andrea Motis: Lullaby of Birdland.

  5. says

    @consciousness razor,
    I was aware of the multiple ideas that get conflated in the word “classic”, but I suppose it didn’t occur to me to raise the issue as part of my argument. So I appreciate you raising the issue.

    The thoughts I am expressing here are fundamentally in response to people who have recommended art/literature to me on the basis of it being “classic”. And not one of those people have ever thought to make a distinction between works that are historically influential, and works that I should enjoy because so many other people have enjoyed it.

    At any rate, I also really don’t get how it could fail to be a “historical accident,” even if we are bringing some ideas about artistic merit into the party as well.

    Yeah, I mean, if a work of art is meritorious, that is just another sort of historical accident, really. If Shakespeare were a “genius”, whatever that means, then that too would be a historical accident. But I think I could still contrast this with the case of the Mona Lisa, which got famous among people who couldn’t even see what it looked like, and had to rely on text descriptions.

    Incidentally, I’m also not into Mozart, but I wasn’t going to talk about that because I have different reasons, and it’s a big can of worms.

  6. bonobojim says

    If you liked Hamlet, I strongly recommend Rosencrantz and Guilderstein are Dead by Tom Stoppard. Try and see it on stage if you can, but if you can’t there’s a passable film version (or the play itself makes good reading).

    Its a very funny subversion of Hamlet from the perspective of the two poor doomed idiots, but also gets some very clever ideas about identity and meta fiction into the mix (there’s a running theme about no one, not even themselves knowing which one is which, they gradually become more and more aware of how much of their own reality doesn’t really make sense, most notably these long speeches that their friend Hamlet keeps making to an invisible audience). It’s a popular play for student theatre groups, being both clever and laugh out loud funny, so that might be your best bet to see it.

  7. Rob Grigjanis says

    bonobojim @7: I’ve heard of the play, but never seen it. One of these days…

    The funniest play I’ve ever seen was The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged), in a Toronto performance nearly thirty years ago. No great underlying themes or ideas, really; just amazingly well done slapstick. One of the very few times I’ve laughed until it hurt.

  8. says

    I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining, but I’d like to point out that a post in which I complain about people giving me recommendations of great classics, is not in fact a request for more recommendations, lovely though they may be.

    I have heard of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead”, and I do so like metafiction, but I don’t see myself seeking out a stage performance any time soon.

  9. Rob Grigjanis says

    cr @5:

    please recall that he did all of it at a fairly young age

    Yep. And my feelings about Mozart aren’t as harsh as those of Glenn Gould, who said that Mozart died too late rather than too early.

  10. Rob Grigjanis says

    re #10: I consider the early (age 38) death of George Gershwin a much greater loss.

  11. A. Noyd says

    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.

    Same here. Trying to take classics in “as is” invariably bores me silly. I’m far more likely to enjoy them when they’re dragged atop a dissection table and analyzed down to their tiniest parts. What nuance did the word X have at the time? What historical event is Y a reference to? What atrocious assumptions led to the author writing Z? The history of many texts can be more interesting than the texts themselves.

    And then there’s the whole pretense that classics are very serious, were written to be very serious, and had very serious authors. Even the humorous stuff: very serious. Lots of otherwise interesting things get warped to fit that very serious mold. But if you approach classics with the attitude that people in the past often made things just for the hell of it—that some classics are actually the shitposts or fanfics or listicles of yore—you can find so much more to relate to. Failing to share the silliness in classics does them a disservice.

    Anyway, I wish society’s default handling for classics was more open and irreverent. Then our guts might react differently.

  12. Elias Hamma says

    The paragraph beginning with “When I watched the play” contains so many falsehoods and misunderstandings that it makes me wonder what production you’ve attended. You are strongly advised to read the play so that you’ll know what’s it about next time you comment on it. Thinking that Hamlet is overrated is one thing; writing nonsense such as “And then he assumes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are in on it too” is quite another.

  13. says

    Elias Hamma @14,
    I don’t know what you’re on about, since you’re choosing not to go into specifics. But if you look at the Wikipedia article that I linked, you’ll find that nearly every aspect of my interpretation has been reflected in the history of Hamlet interpretations.

    Whether Rosencrantz and Guildenstern deserved to die is a common question that modern audiences ask all the time.

  14. Elias Hamma says

    “And then he assumes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are in on it too”

    “It” being, from the context of the sentences, the murder of King Hamlet.

    I mean no disrespect, and I don’t want to turn this into a comment feud, but I have to ask, seriously and non-sarcastically: do you have any idea what is Hamlet’s beef with R&G? Do you have any idea why he had them killed? Do you realize, now at least, that he never suspected them of colluding to murder King Hamlet? This is NOT a matter of interpretation but of textual fact.

  15. says

    Elias Hamma @16,
    Hamlet seems to think R&G are in on something, which is why he killed them. Although I couldn’t tell what exactly Hamlet believed, which is why I used the ambiguous “it” rather than saying whatever you said.

    Note that it’s very common for stage productions of Shakespeare to excerpt or change the text. I don’t think it’s “wrong” to take an interpretation of a stage play that is ultimately refuted by the original text. In the production I saw in high school, the fact that Hamlet killed Polonius to the tune of “Bohemian Rhapsody” was very much a part of the text, despite being refuted by the original text.

    Also, if I misinterpreted the play, I think a lot of that would have to do with my hearing being pretty poor. So I feel like you are attacking me for having bad hearing. If you disagree with my reading of the play, you can just fill in the parts I missed, I don’t mind.

  16. says

    Although I have always loved Hamlet, I agree that the merit of many “classics” is either accidental or contrived. I cannot believe that as Shakespeare was writing the play, some inner sense or muse was guiding his hand, and upon its completion the Bard just had to say to himself “My God, what I have wrought is profound and will go down in history.” No, he was simply writing plays to make a living, and some of his stuff was better than others.

    It’s like a quick sketch that Van Gogh or Degas did to pay for a dinner or a drink, which years later was pronounced as “genius” and sold for millions of dollars. Overrated? You bet.

  17. anothersara says

    As someone who recently visited the state of Utah just so I could go to the Utah Shakespeare Festival and see Henry VI Part 1 (one of the few Shakespeare plays I haven’t seen on stage before, though I’ve seen it now), it looks like I’m much more of a Shakespeare fan than you.

    I do think Hamlet is overrated, not because it’s bad, it’s just that it would be difficult for any work of literature to live up to the reputation that Hamlet has. Though it’s also not one of my favorite Shakespeare tragedies. IMO, the best Shakespeare tragedies are King Lear and Coriolanus, followed by Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet (for specific parts rather than the plays as a whole) and Timon of Athens and Julius Caesar (for the plays as a whole rather than any particular part).

    I do have a particular fondness for obscure Shakespeare plays, perhaps that is my way of reacting against the idea of ‘classics’. I feel it is in some way easier to appreciate obscure Shakespeare plays because they are not as crusted with recent popular interpretations, and there is less cultural pressure to admire them. Some of the obscure Shakespeare plays are simply terrible (Pericles can only be enjoyed in the ‘it’s so bad it’s good’ sense) but some of them, such as Coriolanus, are among his best works.

    Actually, at least on AO3, there is more fanfic of Coriolanus than any other Shakespeare play, mainly because some people really like Gaius Marcius / Aufidius slashfic. Though I don’t care for slash, I agree that it is one of the most interesting relationships between two male characters in Shakespeare, and that’s one of the reasons it is one of Shakespeare’s best plays.

    And then there are the obscure Shakespeare plays which are not particularly good, but are still very interesting, like Measure of Measure. Not only is Measure for Measure one of the few Shakespeare plays where the lead character, Isabella, is female, she is also one of the few Shakespeare heroines whose story contains (almost) no romance – she could easily be interpreted as aromantic. In the play, she is about to enter a nunnery, but then she has to delay taking her vows so she can save her brother’s life first.

    When I want to rebel against the idea of ‘classics’ my target of choice is Jane Austen. I like Northanger Abbey, but her other novels bore me.

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