By Sofya Grebenkina
The moment my parents decided I was to be educated in an English school I knew it was all over. Shakespeare would be the main course on the English Literature menu and there was no escaping him. From encountering Midsummer Night’s Dream in Year 7 to ploughing dutifully through Twelfth Night in Year 13, and now at Durham University studying his entire body of works, I am not surprised that before I’ve even finished a quarter of my life I was to be fully inundated with Shakespeare. And it is in 2016, at the 400th year since his passing, that Shakespeare’s influence on our minds can be most acutely and explicitly felt.
There is no denying that in Britain he is the literary standard-bearer, an almost religious icon in the way that the literary-aware portion of society measures time by before and after Shakespeare. The constant argument over his true identity, whether futile or not, only adds to his mythological status. He is now more than a man, rather a reverently-held locus of the literary tradition. I will not be the one to deny people their god. I have to admit that Othello will always hold a particular fascination and literary strength for me. However it has been impossible for me, despite being gradually exposed to his genius, to not consider Shakespeare somehow overrated.
Here, to support my argument, I’d like to present an example I find pertinent. In the dystopian novel Brave New World, to condense it crudely, the reader is presented with two options of life within society. One is a highly commercialized and emotionally sterilized existence in England, and the other, a primal life with minimal education, sanitation, and other comforts of the modern world. A representative of the latter is John, a savage who escapes the reservation. His only claim to education, one that sets him apart from all, is his volume of The Collected Works of William Shakespeare.
As the chosen symbol for literary education this is unsurprising. Yet, it is also highly problematic. Our vision of a civilising force of magnitude as the plays of Shakespeare should be an offence to anyone claiming to be ideologically liberal and anti-colonialist. For me, instead of access to some higher knowledge, Shakespeare here is instead representative of the brute force of colonialism that haphazardly claims itself above all other tradition.
It is in this spirit that the canonical status of Shakespeare should be constantly disputed, due to the parameters which guard this canon. It cannot be that for a world with such diversity, a single man can produce literature which will embody all experience for all time. To support this, would simply consolidate the ideological power of dead white men that have always deified their work in order to avoid criticism and marginalize women and people of colour from the sphere. Furthermore to give Shakespeare the power that can only be likened to Big Brother over literary tradition, only lessens our chances of creating something new and even, something better, as we are left shackled to arbitrary guidelines.
On a less ideological note, some of Shakespeare’s plays are simply poor writing. In particular his early play The Comedy of Errors, with which I have been forced into close acquaintance, should be considered an embarrassment to the genre. The comedic device of twins is pushed to such limits of absurdity that it no longer holds any ability to please or delight in its craft. Like any writer, he grew in his skill, yet somehow when we talk of Shakespeare we still falsely envision a literary prophet whose works are all of equal merit.
So, celebrate the anniversary with all the gusto you want and reread your favourite plays. Yet keep in mind the prejudices behind your assumptions that Shakespeare is the pinnacle of dramatic or even literary achievement, and maybe then you’ll have the strength to climb out of the wormhole of his accolades and offer the world a much-needed alternative.
Image: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons