Why we still read the Bard

Incredible as this might seem today, William Shakespeare was not considered infallible in 18th century England. There were attempts to rewrite Shakespeare, purging him not only of his flaws but also of his strengths. Even in the late 19th century, Bernard Shaw famously wrote, “with the single exception of Homer, there is no eminent writer, not even Sir Walter Scott, whom I despise so entirely as I despise Shakespeare.”

But it would be a fallacy to attribute Shakespeare’s attraction to us, his almost infallible stature today, simply to colonial (and postcolonial) education or institutionalisation. There is something in Shakespeare that speaks across time and space. What is this?

It cannot be his stories, which were often purloined from other sources. It cannot be the consistency of his engagement with his narratives for isn’t Shakespeare the playwright who, among other things, gets the Romans to play football? His great poetry, surely, and yet there are lines in Shakespeare that make me cringe. He is a great poet at his best, but he is not a great poet at his worst. Shakespeare-fanatics usually get out of this dilemma by attributing all the weakness in Shakespeare to other sources, and this is just another example of the way in which Shakespeare has become religion for some. He is just as much above criticism for a breed of literary critic as the Holy Quran is for a breed of Muslim.

Do not misunderstand me. I am a great admirer of Shakespeare — at his best. This means the Shakespeare of plays like King LearOthello and The Tempest; the Shakespeare of the sonnets. But I remain unconvinced by the stock reasons trotted out to explain Shakespeare at his best — or even to explain how he could be at his best so often when he appears to have cared very little for literary acclaim and was mostly busy trying to make a name and fortune by writing for an audience.

Well, that is one of the two main reasons for Shakespeare’s greatness, the smaller one: he worked with the tensions of creativity and compulsion. In his best plays — because his sonnets were a more elitist and private matter — he bent poetry and creativity to generic and market considerations, and vice versa. He did not set himself up as a literary writer or a pulp author would today: both, in different ways, become captives of generic and social compulsions. Shakespeare appears to have risen above them. No, let me correct myself: he grappled creatively with them. This is partly what explains his ability to make something distinctive of stories that he stole from others, as well as write those lines that transcend the context of his times.

That takes us to the larger of the two reasons that, to my mind, explain and justify the acclaimed survival of Shakespeare. It is not just that he wrote great poetry at his best; he wrote poetry that opened up spaces of understanding in his time and continues to do so today. This he did, again, by working with contradictions and conflicts in literature as well as life. Surely the fact that he came from a persecuted Roman Catholic family had a role to play in his ability to perceive the anger of Shylock or Caliban? The Hollywood notion of Shakespeare as a gallivanting gallant is a joke; everything we know about him indicates that he was not just a social climber but a man in desperate need of social and economic stability.

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