Why Read Shakespeare?

We read deeply for varied reasons, most of them familiar: that we cannot know enough people profoundly enough; that we need to know ourselves better; that we require knowledge, not just of self and others, but of the way things are.
-Harold Bloom

In my senior year of university, a friend whose intelligence I respect asked me, with genuine curiosity, why it is I read Shakespeare. He understood, he said, Shakespeare’s “historical importance,” but could not understand what profit or pleasure I derived from continuing to read the works of a man whose life is four centuries removed from my own. To many people, such a question is ridiculous, even insulting: surely the merits of the writing are so apparent, so baldly evident, that the question is absurd. I blush to admit that my reply, whatever it was, was little better than this. The truth, however, is that the question is a good one, and merits consideration.

At one time, it fell upon teachers and universities to answer this question; it was the job of the curriculum to make the case for reading difficult or obscure texts, for rendering the anachronistic approachable and relatable, even meaningful. Alas, no longer. Abdicating this role, the modern literary professor instructs students to treat the texts as social documents, lenses through which we can examine the political, sexual and cultural mores of a time period. The result is that the students (even the professors) lose the ability to make meaningful distinctions between writers: if the goal becomes social analysis, Shakespeare is no more rich or fruitful than Jonson, Marlowe or Dekker; Mad Men will yield no more material than The Real Housewives of the O.C. The politics of this shift and its broader consequences are beyond the scope of my designs for this article, but they are deserving of future scrutiny. For the time being, suffice it to say that the academies and the vaunted “liberal arts” education have not – indeed, cannot – provide a solution.

Why, then, do we read Shakespeare?  What gain is derived from prying ourselves away from cellphones, computers and the myriad other demands the world makes upon our attention to grapple with older texts, an expired dialect and annotations so numerous they cover half of every page? The answer is inextricably intertwined with our fundamental human nature. We are all of us single consciousnesses forced to contemplate our own extinction. We share a common biology and, for all our many differences, common goals: empathy, understanding, friendship, love, a sense of purpose. The enemies are legion: nihilism, solipsism, apathy and banality, to name but a few. It is the very fact that we share these elements in common that causes us both to produce and appreciate art, which offers nothing if not a vicarious human experience.

And this is what Shakespeare offers in such abundance, a vitality and authenticity of human experience, approached, or possibly equalled, by our greatest writers, but never surpassed, and certainly never sustained across a body of work and a host of characters with such astonishing ease. John Dryden said of Shakespeare that he possessed “the largest and most comprehensive soul” of all the modern poets, by which he meant that he can encompass and represent the widest variety of human emotion and experience. Samuel Johnson echoed this remark in his “Preface to Shakespeare,” in which he compares the works of writers to gardens and those of Shakespeare to a forest. Hegel, in much the best summation of Shakespeare’s characters, said that they are “free artists of themselves,” transcending the prison of their plays and creating for themselves meaning and experience, as each and every one of us strives to do with our lives.

The specifics of this power I hope to elucidate over the course of further postings, with the special purpose of rendering his works more approachable to those who have found them difficult or opaque, but I will close with one of David Foster Wallace’s more poignant aphorisms: literature is “about what it means to be a fucking human being.” And so it is. We read Shakespeare because we are human, and because no writer before or since has understood or represented this tense and problematic condition with such nuance and honesty.