With Shakespeare’s birthday celebrations right around the corner (the known world tends to celebrate on April 23rd though we can only guess at the precise date; this year Shakespeare turns 450!), it’s natural to find a resurgence of Shakespeare-related ephemera on the internet. This year, a friend of mine unearthed the following buzzfeed article which, in the proud tradition of internet take-downs (and, since I’m a professional paladin of the Bard), I’m going to take a moment to address.
The article’s author, Krystie Lee Yandoll, relates her traumatic childhood experiences with Shakespeare which lead to her adult disdain for the playwright. Well, Krystie, let’s get real for a few minutes.
I can understand hating Hamlet in sixth grade and, in fact, I wonder at the wisdom of the teacher who presented it to you at that young tender age. While I have every firm belief in the intellectual capacity of kids, with very few exceptions forced middle school readings of Shakespeare can be nothing but a horrible memory. I apologize on behalf of Shakespeare professionals everywhere that this was your first experience with the Bard.
But your continued adherence to a blind hatred is nothing less than juvenile. You go on to explain why reading Taming of the Shrew in high school didn’t appeal to you. You say, “sure, it’s reflective of the time period it was written in — racial, gender, and sexual equality hadn’t yet reached 16th century England — but that doesn’t make me any more inclined to relish in what I interpret to be Shakespeare’s inherent sexism. If I don’t like reading modern stories and authors that perpetuate sexist ideals about gender, love, and marriage, why should I make an exception for Shakespeare?” First of all, let’s get something straight; you cannot project your contemporary feminist ideals anachronistically onto a playwright whose worldview had no place for them. You concede this, but continue on to violate your own conceit. Stick to your preliminary guns on this one; your first instinct is the right one.
Second, who says that Taming of the Shrew perpetuates sexist ideals? I would argue that that play portrays men as nothing less than cruel inhuman monsters. Petruchio is the worst conception of a man when first we meet him and grows only slightly better by the end of the play. Your determination to hate everything about this has blinded you to the facts: instead of looking at the spark notes, you should have read deeper. Alright, perhaps you weren’t capable of this in high school, but you’re an adult now. You can go underneath the text to project different theoretical lenses onto a piece and use your critical thinking skills to uncover readings that were previously not available to you. But you didn’t do that; and by not doing that, you continue to spout a narrow point of view on the matter which isn’t flattering to your mental capacities. Unpacking this information to satisfy your modern bias could lead to something more; don’t just give up and cry that this is horrible.
You continue on to claim: “The dominant narrative is, more often than not, determined by society’s elite. I’d rather not put an old, rich, white man from regal Britain and his antiquated ideologies about society on a pedestal.”
There’s a couple problems with this statement. First and foremost: Shakespeare was neither old nor rich at the time he began his career. Though he eventually became both (… “old” is still debatable since he died at the age of 52), you can’t project the future onto the past.
Secondly, you’re completely ignoring the history of Shakespeare in the United States (and, for that matter, England). Shakespeare has always been a people’s playwright; from the groundlings who saw the shows during the seventeenth century, through to the groundlings who see them today. Nineteenth century America was essentially a hotbed of popular culture Shakespeare. He was a staple in vaudeville, hugely popular amongst minstrel acts, and stories run rampant about cowboys reciting Macbeth and forty niners walking hours to get to a play at night. It wasn’t society’s elite that made Shakespeare into The Bard; it was common man (especially here in America).
Third, I wouldn’t say that there’s anything antiquated about Shakespeare “ideologies about society”; we still deal with tyrants (in government and our personal lives), we still deal with warring families (though perhaps not as bad as the Lear or Gloucester families), we still deal with social norms about marriage (when was the last time you saw a debate online about same-sex marriage? And when was the last time you saw a progressively-cast version of Midsummer?) Take a closer look and come back to argue when you have some hard evidence. I’ll be happy to entertain your notions when you actually know what you’re talking about.
You reveal that “every time someone brings up Macbeth or The Tempest, I feel like I have a knot in my stomach because all I ever wanted in the world is to be taken seriously as a writer and lover of literature, and I never thought that could happen if I admitted to my disdain for Shakespeare.” Frankly, it’s not your disdain for Shakespeare that makes me not take you seriously as a writer; it’s your disdain for the facts and critical thinking. If this were a well-argued piece, I would have applauded you. Instead, all I can see is a narrow-minded rant about why your scaring childhood experiences have prevented you from widening your focus to attempt to understand a cultural phenomenon.
You don’t have to like Shakespeare; but if you’re going to argue about him you do have to understand him.