Criticizing Shakespeare

When a writer’s works remain an integral part of high school reading for over 300 years, you know the person did something right. The question is what it was that makes that person’s words resonate across the centuries.

In my poetry class this quarter, one of the assignments for students is to critique one of the poems assigned for class by analyzing the poem for meter, rhythm, the figurative language, and essentially picking apart the different components of the thing. I’m not very good at leading discussions in any format, and I’m especially clueless when it comes to poetry. In the end I decided to approach my assigned critique the way I always had; after paying attention to the form, talk about what I liked and didn’t like and ask the others what they thought.

When I asked if there was anything this particular sonnet could have done better, I got an astonished look from my professor along with the joking comment, “Oh, so you’re grading Shakespeare now?” He added that he did think it was important to take actually question the techniques of someone like Shakespeare; I just wish it hadn’t come across as such a surprising thing to do.

For one thing, Shakespeare’s reputation and works are not going anywhere. He’s read in high schools across the world. His plays are adapted for both stage and film and draw massive audiences. One of the best mystery stories I’ve ever read centered entirely on a production of Macbeth and the analysis of that play by the director and actors in it.

Picking at one sonnet won’t hurt the man.

Nor will criticizing his other works.

Analyzing the works of Shakespeare doesn’t mean implying that I (or anyone else who critiques them) can do better. I know that I can’t. But when you pick apart what makes a story work and what doesn’t, it allows you to gain a deeper understanding of the work itself. An example is comparing and contrasting what makes Othello a better play than Romeo and Juliet. The characters in Othello have much more complicated relationships, and their motivations and characterizations are done with much more subtlety than those of R & J. The tragedy in Othello is much more powerful than that of R & J because in Othello, we are treated first-hand to the sight of a good and heroic character falling into evil. It doesn’t really compare to Romeo, a lustful and fickle teen, killing himself because he can’t face life without Juliet. The side characters in Othello have much more depth and play more deeply into the plot than those of R & J. Emilia’s unwitting aid in incriminating Desdemona and poor Rodrigo’s hapless playing into Iago’s hands develop these two as characters in ways that the Friar and Mercutio (wonderful though his dirty puns may be) never were developed.

Othello’s exploration of love is much more profound and heart-wrenching than that that of R & J, but that could be a blog post in and of itself. In a nutshell, while Romeo falls for Juliet in less than a few seconds, Othello and Desdemona at least go through the motions of getting to know one another over a long space of time. We know that they have talked with each other and see something more than just attractive looks and sweet words, and from there, they are miles ahead of Romeo and Juliet. But it doesn’t mean that their love is perfect; in fact, I would argue that part of the point of Othello is that their love wasn’t perfect. But it was a very genuine love nonetheless. They were early in their marriage, which was already under a bit of strain because of the fact that they eloped. I believe that if not for Iago’s machinations, they could have been happy together.

But I would never have actually thought about any of the above, or gained as much of an understanding of the respective themes and characters of those two plays if not for a three-hour-long (at least) debate between my father, my old philosophy teacher, and myself about the relative merits of Shakespeare’s various plays and which ones were better than others.

It was a great discussion; it covered everything from the nature of pure love to character growth to how productions of these plays could be staged. And none of it would have happened if we hadn’t started nitpicking at the two plays and arguing about which aspects of them had been clumsily handled.

This is where criticizing Shakespeare can lead; it can get you to the heart of what made his works so great. A good criticizing can do wonders for highlighting various aspects of a literary work- and when that work is written by someone like William Shakespeare, it can show why those works are so well-regarded and why we should still read them. His works are difficult to get through and sometimes that can be off-putting. Acknowledging that doesn’t invalidate the power of his stories, and it certainly doesn’t mean dismissing his works. Pointing out the flaws in Shakespeare’s plays (beyond “THE LANGUAGE IS SO HARD!!”) can be a good way to finding out what does work in those plays- and why they’re still read and performed hundreds of years later.

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11 thoughts on “Criticizing Shakespeare

  1. I have this ongoing argument with my sister about the value of R&J. She thinks they are just stupid kids that make stupid decisions and therefore writes it off as melodrama along with Twilight. I say their stupid decisions are the whole point.

    • I’ve always read R & J as a riff on society- and I’m fairly sure that while it’s one of Shakespeare’s weaker plays, he knew exactly what he was doing when he depicted Romeo and Juliet the way he did. From the fact that Shakespeare doesn’t end on the note of their respective suicides, but rather the Montague and Capulet families getting a tongue-lashing for their feud, my guess is that he was using the love story as a means to comment on the stupidity of that feud.If you examine the play, a significant portion of the dialogue is spent on the warring families… I think there was a reason for that.

  2. I say good on you! No one is above criticism, not even Shakespeare.
    I personally can’t stand Romeo and Juliet. I see it as a ridiculous, useless degrading teenage depiction of two idiotic, fickle induviduals who can’t control their hormones. Maybe thats too harsh, or somehow makes me ignorant….I don’t know. I’ve never gotten on with shakespeare, I just don’t enjoy the stories. As a bookaholic I know I should…..but I just don’t. Although to be fair I don’t know his work probably as well as I should, I only really know Romeo and Juliet and Richard 3rd in great detail, the others I have only a shady outline of.
    Great thought provoking post. The title made me smile when I saw it in my inbox haha 🙂

    • My main thoughts on R & J are above 🙂 and though I’m not a huge Shakespeare reader, I think one of the biggest problems is that these plays are meant to be SEEN, not read. I used to hate Hamlet until I saw a production of it, which did wonders for my understanding of the story and every character involved. Seeing the people on stage and acting is really how those plays should be dealt with, as that’s how you get the full force of their meaning. But from just reading- Macbeth and Othello are really good from only reading. I really liked the Kenneth Branagh (sp?) version of Henry V as well. Midsummer Night’s Dream and Much Ado About Nothing are a blast onstage, if you can get the chance to see them. Twelfth Night is pretty good as well.

      • Yeah that’s a good point, I’ve never actually seen a Shakespeare play in action. I can imagine that could be a really great expirience. Maybe I should give some of his other works a go….maybe I’ll try Othello, it sounds interesting from what you’ve said about it above.

        • Othello is one of my favorites, right alongside Macbeth. It’s heartbreaking in a lot of ways, and the villain in that play has a reputation for being one of Shakespeare’s most horrible villains, if that sort of thing is interesting 🙂

            • Sort of, but it’s a bit more complicated than just a romance. I honestly think tragedy is the only way I can describe it- it’s a very sad play where the protagonist- who’s a good person- ends up largely bringing about his own downfall.

  3. I admit to never reading or watching Othello, despite the promise of a good villain! Your description sounds like I need to fix this.
    I think critiquing the “masters” is a great idea. As a reader you will only benefit by doing so.
    I also didn’t “get” Hamlet until I watched a version with Derek Jacobi years ago. I’ve never found that version again, but I remember his portrayal brought out the sense of humor of the character (or more properly his biting wit) that I didn’t get from reading it. Now I can enjoy it much better.

    • Othello is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays- there’s quite a lot happening in it, and it features a lot of complicated and compelling characters. I also think it’s one of Shakespeare’s saddest tragedies (not that I’ve read very many, but I know this one really touched me).
      Oooh, Derek Jacobi is such a good actor. And yes, seeing any play really does wonders for how much better and easier to understand it becomes. Seeing the actors investing emotion and responding to each other does so much for how the lines and actions are understood. It’s how those things were meant to be seen.

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