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.