As an AP English teacher, Shakespeare is naturally part of the curriculum and it’s expected my students adore the Avon man as much as I do. Not usually the case. As for my regular sophomores? The groans when we approach Julius Caesar can discouraging. Yet, it is often in how Shakespeare is taught that makes a difference. This is a separate topic. The main topic is the assumption that Shakespeare is for everyone and they are going to like it. That’s like saying exercising is for everyone. It should be, but face it, not everyone embraces a push-up or a run around the block. Some like the idea of exercising and others have tried it, and many let others revel in it. So it goes with Shakespeare.
AUSTIN TICHENOR is the creator of The Shakespereance; co-artistic director of the Reduced Shakespeare Company. He contributed a thought-provoking article about Shakespeare. Here is the gist of his rhetorical stance:
Is Shakespeare for everyone? Of course he is! Absolutely!
I just wish people would stop saying it.
In Shakespeare’s day, his plays — and plays by others, and theater generally — really were for everyone. All levels of society congregated to see and hear plays in performance, to share gossip and news, and to rub literal and metaphorical elbows. Not just a source for entertainment, Shakespeare’s theater was the internet of its day.
But beginning in the 19th century, theater (and opera and symphonies) became co-opted by the upper class who wanted to keep socially — often meaning ethnically and economically — “unacceptable” people out of the theater, turning what was originally popular culture into “high” culture and using the arts as a tool of status and exclusion.
Worse, as a by-product of imperialism, Shakespeare was imposed on non-English speakers in different countries, held up as the best playwright in the world with the understanding that only by learning his plays and accepting his greatness — and, by extension, the greatness of the English language and Anglo-European culture — could one become truly civilized.
So I get it: “Shakespeare is for everyone” is an important correction, a reminder that Shakespeare’s plays were written to be popular entertainments, designed to appeal to everyone from the groundlings to the nobility.
But I worry that “Shakespeare is for everyone” nowadays feels less like a promise and more like a threat; the implication being that if you don’t like him, there’s something wrong with you..
Because the truth is, Shakespeare isn’t for everyone, and it’s disingenuous to suggest that it is. Nothing is for everyone: Personally, I don’t like opera, baseball, or video games, and in London at the turn of the 17th century, there were tens of thousands of people who undoubtedly preferred to skip another one of Shakespeare’s epics and head to the bear-baiting pits instead.
So what’s the alternative? I prefer saying “Shakespeare is for anyone who wants him.” For many reasons (i.e., the comedies aren’t funny, the language is incomprehensible, the kings and their nobles are confusing, the references archaic), Shakespeare is demonstrably not for everyone. And that’s okay. But I’ll argue till my dying day that he can and should be made available to anyone who wants him, with many different entry points for people of all levels and interests, whether they be live productions, fascinating lectures, compelling museum exhibitions, excellent films and videos, or even, dare I suggest, pop-up books. One of the first steps in appreciating Shakespeare, it seems to me, is being honest about his output, for we can only truly appreciate his greatness by being discerning enough to recognize the parts that don’t measure up, and understanding that no matter what we do, he still won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.