Kate Towsey

When I was younger, and I wanted to be an author, I always thought that the definition of success was to have your own Wikipedia page. A bit of a limited definition of success, right? Success, as I came to realise, is a much more nebulous, and deeply personal quality, hardly quantifiable by an online dictionary.

"Although he may not be perfect, he’s still very much infallible"

But that definition of success, as stupid as it sounds, has always stuck with me just a little bit. And one day, whilst writing a weekly essay on Hamlet, I found myself googling, and subsequently looking up on Wikipedia, that phrase which has become utterly associated, and completely inseparable from Shakespearean theatre. It was of course, ‘To be, or not to be.’ It’s a phrase which has had an inconceivably large cultural impact – it’s everywhere, being paraphrased in other plays, in popular literature, in our everyday speech. But you don’t need me to tell you that our very language is built upon the Bard’s literary scaffolding – you’ve probably already heard it a million times from your GCSE English teacher. That’s not the point I want to make. That wasn’t the part which impressed me. Instead, when I stopped to think about it for a second, I was astonished: here was a figure of such towering literary genius that he not only had his own, vastly detailed, Wikipedia page, but so too, did the very phrases which he had invented. My younger self would have been in utter awe.

Again, I acknowledge, that’s an utterly stupid way of looking at Shakespeare’s genius – there are so many other ways to credit his literary merit. I’m almost embarrassed that that was my immediate reaction, so I won’t dwell on it for any longer. Instead, I’d like to think about it in terms of something much more significant: bardolatry. Shakespeare worship. The allocation of absolute praise to a figure who is so ingrained in our cultural consciousness that it would be hard to go a single day without uttering a phrase which he invented. Why? Why is he so popular? Why has he become this staple of English Literature?

Every single term that I’ve been in Cambridge has seen multiple productions of Shakespeare featuring on Camdram. There’s a Shakespeare play for every season of the year – a frosty ‘Macbeth’ for Michaelmas, a light-hearted ‘Love Labour’s Lost’ for Lent, and a ‘Comedy of Errors’ for Easter. We somehow never, ever get bored of reading them, watching them, or acting in them. The peak of any thespian career is arguably considered to lie in portraying Hamlet, and Romeo and Juliet functions as a byword for romance enacted by illicit young lovers. It’s like Shakespeare is a consumable product – the more we have of him, the more we want, and we somehow never get bored of his plots, many of which we vaguely know before we even see them. I could go on for ages like this. A quick google search asking ‘Is Shakespeare still relevant?’ tells me what I already knew – it’s because he was a master wordsmith, because of his eternal relevance etc. etc. But I still don’t think that quite captures the exact reasoning behind his popularity.

"Just because something is popular and well established within our cultural consciousness, it doesn’t mean it can't be criticised"

If you thought this was going to be an article debunking why Shakespeare worship is still a thing, or why exactly his cultural presence is as potent today as it ever was, then I’m going to have to disappoint you, mainly because I’m probably just as confused as you are. As an English student, I’ve lived and breathed Shakespeare (whether I wanted to or not); I’ve read him and about him, I’ve watched him, I’ve (over)-analysed him, and I still find myself baffled by him.

In fact, whilst watching Much Ado about Nothing earlier this term, I was struck by how difficult it is to critique Shakespeare in performance. By all means, we can critique the staging, the set and the acting, but no one dares touch the writing itself. It’s treated with this bizarre kind of reverence – if anything goes wrong with the play then the fault lies with the production itself and nowhere else. And it’s not that I do want to critique the Bard's work – after all, who am I to do so – but I'd like to make the point that just because something is popular and well established within our cultural consciousness, doesn’t mean it can't be criticised. I’ve seen plot flaws pointed out before (none of them utterly convincing): the sudden disappearance of Benvolio in Romeo and Juliet, or the fact that the gulling scene in Othello only works for Iago because Cassio is remarkably unclear about who exactly he is describing, or the fact that it’s never explicitly stated that the spell is removed from Demitirus in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. Hamlet (along with the vast majority of his plays) isn’t even an original plot – an Anglo-Saxon version of the story existed for centuries beforehand. Although back in those days, it wasn’t strictly plagiarism. To quote Director Joshua Engel: ‘I can't think of any other author who gets this kind of treatment. In the hands of a lesser playwright, these mistakes would simply be mistakes.’


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So where does that leave us in the modern age? Whilst new writing is still undeniably valuable, Shakespeare remains as popular as ever; he’s still utterly revered and continues to hold a genuine monopoly over the stage (both inside and outside of Cambridge). And that’s a monopoly which we can expect him not to relinquish any time soon. Like I said, Shakespeare is an enigma, and I don’t think anyone, least of all me, can put their finger on why exactly he’s as popular as he is. Instead, I’ll have to make do with the conclusion that although he may not be perfect, he’s still very much infallible, and that’s simultaneously remarkable and infuriating.