Shakespeare for Everyone?
With characteristic enthusiasm, the editor of the Crossway blog site suggested that I write on "Why Every Christian Should Read Shakespeare." I have reined in his enthusiasm with a touch of Dutch realism. I want people who have what it takes to read Shakespeare to do so, but not everyone has the requisite skills to make it possible. This is not a moral failing, so no guilt necessarily or automatically attaches to not reading and viewing Shakespeare. On the other hand, I would like some of my readers to upgrade the quality of their leisure life by dipping into Shakespeare.
In the exuberant 1960s, a Shakespeare scholar wrote a book entitled Shakespeare for Everyone. I quote the title approvingly in my Shakespeare course on a day when I talk about the universality of Shakespeare. However, that is different from claiming that everyone should read Shakespeare.
The Language Barrier
Shakespeare is a difficult author. His mastery of the English language exceeded that of any other mortal. He was master of a vocabulary of over 20,000 words (compared with 6,000 for the King James Bible and 13,000 for John Milton).
The result of all this linguistic brilliance is that Shakespeare's language is beyond the complete grasp of any reader. In addition, Shakespeare's language is (a) often archaic and outdated, and (b) so metaphoric that it is impossible to grasp everything that Shakespeare put into his lines.
None of this means that people should not read and view Shakespeare. We do not need to grasp every word in order to have an optimal literary experience with Shakespeare. It only adds a note of realism to what we can reasonably expect of the reading public, including ourselves. A lot of harm has been done for prospective readers of Shakespeare by having the plays forced on them before they were prepared to understand them.
Did Shakespeare Write Any Bad Plays?
I will also assert my opinion that once we get beyond the ten or twelve best Shakespearean plays (out of the thirty-seven that he wrote), the quality drops off drastically. I personally would say that we fall into a black hole.
Even if that seems too drastic, a lot of mischief has been done by pretending that every Shakespearean play is great or even constitutes good stewardship of time to read or view.
Who Should Read or View Shakespeare?
My answer to the question of who should read and view Shakespeare is, "All Christians who can do so with profit." John Milton, in his poem Paradise Lost, acknowledged the limited audience who could read his poem when he spoke of a "fit audience though few."
The unstated premise of my remarks about reading Shakespeare is that more Christians should read or view Shakespeare than currently do. The company of the "fit" is mainly limited by people's laziness in regard to their leisure time.
The unstated premise of my remarks about reading Shakespeare is that more Christians should read or view Shakespeare than currently do.
Why Should Christians Read Shakespeare?
Here are four reasons:
The minimal requirement for a leisure time pursuit (including our reading) is that it should give us pleasure. Shakespeare delivers the goods. In spite of the fact that Shakespeare is a difficult writer, he is still the best show in town when it comes to theatrical performance. When I return from a summer Wheaton-in-England program, it is obvious that attending plays by Shakespeare is what sparked the greatest interest of my students in their attendance of plays.
2. Superior Artistry
The reason that Shakespeare generates so much interest among English teachers is that there is so much analysis that can be done with his plays. In an essay on Renaissance poet Edmund Spenser (an approximate contemporary of Shakespeare), C. S. Lewis used the formula "line by line deliciousness." Shakespeare's plays have line by line deliciousness. And not only his lines but also the larger elements in his plays like their patterning and organization.
3. Depth of Human Experience
The subject of literature is human experience, concretely embodied. The knowledge that literature imparts is knowledge in the form of right seeing. Literature gets us to stare at human experience, and when we stare at it we come to see it accurately. All great writers are skilled at observing life accurately, but no one has excelled Shakespeare.
This does not mean that Shakespeare writes in the mode of realism. His mode is fantasy, as even the verse form in which he composed signals. But coming through the unlifelike surface details is universal human experience. Christians are members of the human race. God wants them to understand human experience, as the Bible itself demonstrates.
4. Encountering the Great Ideas
Writers not only present human experience for our contemplation; they also interpret it. By doing so, they put implied ideas before us for our consideration.
Sometimes Shakespeare explicitly affirms a Christian view of reality—the reality of sin and guilt in Macbeth, for example, or the affirmation of romantic love and marriage in his comedies. At other times Shakespeare's plays belong to the category that I call the literature of clarification and common human experience. At that point a play stops short of explicitly affirming a Christian view of life, but it is readily congruent with it.
Wanting the Best in Our Literary Experiences
Why should Christians read Shakespeare? For me the answer falls into the realm of good stewardship. God wants us to be all that we can be, including in our leisure pursuits. Sometimes (not always) we should reach for the best, and Shakespeare is one of the authors who meets that standard.