The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Monday, September 12, 2011

Impotent Shakespeare Rage

Sorry I haven't written in a while...field work, as usual. Anyway, back to the usual nonsense...

When I was in college, I worked in a clothing store with a fellow named Steve. Steve was very much into the local community theater, and one day began talking about the plays attributed to William Shakespeare*. Knowing only a small amount about the plays, I tried to make conversation by bringing up the one thing that I actually was aware of. I asked him what he thought of the claims that the plays were not written by Shaksepare, but by someone else entirely.

His response: "Oh, I know that they were really written by him."

I asked how he knew, expecting that he would provide an argument in favor of the position. His response to this was simply to say "I'm a theater person. Ask any theater person, we just know that he wrote them."

I pressed him on the point, figuring that he was claiming that being involved in theater meant that he had developed a special technical knowledge and that some aspect of the plays from a technical standpoint was consistent with one writer. When I asked this, he simply repeated "I'm a theater person. Ask any theater person, we just know that he wrote them."

That was it. He was saying that because he was involved in community theater in California during the late 20th century, this somehow influenced whether or not some guy in 16th century England wrote a set of plays. The notion that one's current interests somehow influence historical happenings is, of course, absurd. Regardless of whether or not the claims of false authorship has any merit, one's current after-work activities are completely irrelevant to the question, unless you happen to be a time-traveling theater critic (in which case, why was he selling cut-rate suits at a mall in Modesto?).

Since then, I have often used the "I'm in theater, therefore I know" conversation as an example of how one can reach a perfectly reasonable conclusion ("Shakespeare wrote the plays attributed to him") via stupid and sloppy reasoning ("I know because I have magical theater powers!"). But it was not the last time I would have essentially the same conversation. It wasn't always about the authorship of the plays, often it has been about the merits of Shakespeare as a writer. Since I worked with Steve, I have both read many of Shakespeare's plays and seen many, many productions. And while I can kinda' get why many people enjoy them, they aren't precisely my cup of tea. It seems to shock some people to learn that I have no problem at all understanding the language**, and yet I have never been particularly impressed with most of the plays - I have enjoyed some of them, and many of them are intellectually interesting even if I don't particularly enjoy them, but I am not particularly taken with the plays in general and have always been a bit lost on what all of the fuss is about.

Kaylia agrees with me, though as someone who is far more interested in the process of writing than I am, her indifference towards Shakespeare seems to have turned to a bit of antipathy due to years of having people insist that she must bow before the altar of the man from Stratford-on-Avon. I think it's rather like my antipathy towards Heinrich Schliemann.

So, I was prepared for a bit of a blow-down fight when someone this weekend announced that Shakespeare was the greatest writer ever. I was proud to see, though, that Kaylia, while standing her ground and sticking to her guns, remained consistently reasonable, maintained a consistent set of critiques (which she backed up with evidence), and admitted that the reaction that one has to any piece of art being subjective, she was stating in part critiques based on evidence and, in part, a distaste based on her subjective experience.

The person favoring Shakespeare was not satisfied though, and kept pushing the notion that Shakespeare's plays weren't simply something important to her, but were objectively better plays than anything ever written by anyone else. She started by making a reasonable argument for Shakespeare as a craftsman, but when Kaylia and myself argued against that (successfully), she took the route of essentially just asserting that Shakespeare was the greatest without trying to support the claim. She even went so far as to claim that one's reaction to a piece of art was not subjective, but objective, and therefore her reaction to Shakespeare's plays was the same as everyone's reaction...which is just kind of absurd and easily disproven by the fact that I, for one, didn't have the same response as her (though she tried to claim that I did...which was, well, weird).

After everyone mellowed out, she admitted that she attaches a good deal of personal importance to Shakspeare's plays, and therefore hearing someone dismiss her idol got her hackles up. Fair enough, I think we've all done that at some time. It's what the folks on a podcast I like to listen to refer to as "impotent nerd rage" - the tendency to become upset when you feel that something that you care about, but which is ultimately inconsequential, is not being taken seriously (named "nerd rage" due to the fact that it is endemic in science fiction and fantasy fandom).

But it got me thinking, why Shakespeare? Not just in her case, not just in Steven's case, but why does Shakespeare get people so riled up?

Of course, the woman with whom I was arguing would claim that is is yet more proof of Shakespeare's brilliance...except that the people who are inflamed with passion are often just as likely to be Shakespeare detractors as fans.

I think that part of it may be the way that Shakespeare's plays and poems are introduced to us as children. We are told, time and again, that he was the greatest writer, and therefore those who find a connection and appreciation for his work tend to feel smarter, more sophisticated, and often are praised by teachers. Those of us who don't find ourselves appreciating them are informed time and again by smug people that we will grow to appreciate it when we become more sophisticated...with those smug bastards never actually bothering to make a measure of our actual level of sophistication, and simply assuming that we lack such qualities because we don't enjoy their favorite writer. So, right of the bat, there's a wedge driven in between those who appreciate his works, and are provided with the illusion that they are objectively right to enjoy it, and those of us who have a different reaction and find ourselves having to deal with the fans...of course, most people simply forget about it and go on oblivious (and I think that they might have the right idea in this case). Incidentally, the lisy of those who are detractors of Shakespeare is really quite distinguished.

I think, also, that there is another level at work here. There have been many, many great writers in the English language, some of them are even alive today, and these writers have left us with a vast and rich literature to enjoy. I, myself, find a good deal to admire and to think about and feel in the writings of Mark Twain and F. Scott Fitzgerald...but I react this way because I am me, and it would be absurd for me to expect others to react similarly. My friend Liberty - who is a professor of Renaissance Literature (and therefore about as sophisticated on the matter as one can be expected to be) enjoys Christopher Marlowe (who the woman with whom Kaylia and I were arguing dismissed as "objectively boring" - strangely rejecting the notion that boredom is a subjective reaction to a piece of art), though Libby also is also aware that this is in large part due to her own personal tastes and background. Kaylia, a published author and someone who holds a degree in literature (and therefore is, again, pretty damn sophisticated on the subject) finds much of value in contemporary fiction, and sometimes delves into 19th century fiction. But between the three of us, we just scratch the top of the iceburg of what is available to English-speaking readers.

Amongst these great authors, there are many different works which will convey meaning, enjoyment, and feeling to many different readers. Some are more influential than others (it's hard to imagine modern English literature without Charles Dickens, for example), and there are some who are under-rated (I think that there is a good deal of merit to Raymond Chandler's stories of corruption in early-mid 20th century Los Angeles, both for their literary value and for their importance as documents of how a period in history was viewed by those who lived through it). But the notion that there is any one, or even a group of, writers who will absolutely, without question, appeal to and be important to all readers is absurd. And yet, this is, to a large degree, what our modern education system pushes - the idea that Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, F. Scott Fitzgerald were objectively good and that if you do not appreciate them, you are somehow unworthy. This is further backed by the notion that a work somehow gains greater merit with age (and, arguably, with association with Europe), which is also rather a strange idea when you actually stop and really consider it. To call the notion silly would be to give it too much credit...and yet, it is an idea that pervades how literature is taught throughout both elementary and high school education.

I think there is one further part to the puzzle, though (though bear in mind that I am out of specialization here, and therefore my opinions should be taken just as that). It's what I (of course) call the archaeological problem. In archaeology, as you probably know, we deal with the material that survives depositional processes and is preserved...and most of what was used day-to-day didn't survive, so we are left fitting together bits and pieces to make sense of the past. Literature is in a similar state. The printing press wasn't invented until the 15th century, and so important works were copied by hand, resulting in few books being produced. Even after the printing press came into use, the costs of printing remained high for some time, further impacting what was printed. We tend to assume that what was printed was inherently important, and there is some truth to this, but the reasons why it was considered important often had alot to do with the quirks of society (and of individual printers...and those who would pay printers), and as such might not always make sense to a modern person. Add to this that even with the printing press, print runs were small by modern standards, and you have a condition in which is is pretty much guaranteed that a large chunk of what was printed is now lost to us.

So, we are left with an incomplete record of our literature. Were there writers whose work would have left modern readers astounded at their beauty and value? Maybe. We have no way of knowing. What little was written down by hand, or printed on early presses, suggests that there likely were such artists...but we really don't know. We also have a notion that certain authors (Shakespeare is a big one, though this is true of others as well) invented modern literature (including prose, poetry, and drama) out of whole cloth, when they were not writing in a vacuum and were, no doubt, influenced by others just as they would in turn influence others. It makes for a situation where it looks like there was a sudden creation of modern English literature, when what we are probably seeing is a snapshot in time where we simply don't have the advantage of the previous photos in the sequence***. Yes, we have bits and pieces from prior to the 15th century, but it is limited in such a way as to make the issue rather confused. It's as if someone were not allowed to read or see plays, but only watch films. Such a person would be convinced that Orson Welles created drama...which he, of course, did not do****.

Regardless, I have to admit that I have long since gotten rather tired of the cult of Shakespeare. I can appreciate his work intellectually, and I even enjoy some of the comedies, but the notion that he was the greatest writer (or, even more narrowly, playwright) ever to have lived is, frankly, a claim based more on wishful thinking and fandom than on any actual evidence.

*I say attributed for a few reasons. The first is that there is a long-running dispute about whether or not he actually wrote them, though I have no idea what the strength of the evidence regarding that claim actually is, and I care even less (despite what is written int he following sentence). The second is that there is also apparently some discussion in scholarly circles regarding the degree to which various plays were tampered with post-writing. the third is that there is fairly strong evidence that portions of at least one play, and possibly others for all I know, were plagiarized from other sources and therefore weren't the works of William Shakespeare to begin with. On all of these points, I remain agnostic because I don't know enough about them to know how much, if any, merit the various claims have, and frankly, I care too little to go researching.

**One of the most irritating things that people say to me when I state that I am not so wild about Shakespeare's plays is "well, once you get used to the language, you'll understand it and then you'll see the appeal!" I never had a problem with the language, as dialects of English go I've always found Elizabethan stage-talk pretty damn easy to comprehend. Likewise, I have seen many productions by different groups with different cast and crew of the plays that I haven't much cared for, so don't claim that it's that I haven't seen the right production...if the only thing in common between the productions that I have seen is the script, then it's a fair bet that it's the script with which I have a problem.

***Think of it another way - on the show Seinfeld, the character of George is quite a loser...but after meeting a new woman he discovered that if he claims to have done in a week what had actually taken him ten years (get a job, get an apartment, make friends, etc.), he looked impressive. I think there's a similar thing at work here, where we suddenly see more of what is going on and assume therefore that more is being invented when it is, more likely, simply being recorded for the first time.

****Though he might have claimed otherwise.


Shawn Kilburn said...

Matt, I loved this essay. And I say that as a lover of Shakespeare. :)

Really, there's no impotent nerd rage ragier than the literary nerd's nerd rage!

One could argue (and I am, subjectively) that the literary nerd's impotent nerd rage is the oldest and BEST of all the impotent nerd rages!

Anthroslug said...

Thanks Shawn.

I have no problem with people getting into their favorite authors, but I have always been a bit mystified as to why the types of arguments that people make about, for example, their favorite version of star Trek are somehow given a weird degree of gravity when they are directed towards Shakespeare, or the poetry attributed to Homer, etc. Yes, there is legitimate scholarly work done on these fellows, but much of what gets screamed about isn't the scholarly work.