When people think of Shakespeare and his plays, in my experience, they usually think of stuffy English professors, being forced to read texts in an excruciatingly painful manner, and general incomprehensibility.

What they don’t realize is that Shakespeare became a darling of the establishment relatively recently. Far from being heralded as “the most human human ever”, as one overly-gushing fan describes, Shakespeare was viewed as common trash and was nearly forgotten.

At the time he worked, theater was seen as a disreputable and unwholesome amusement, one that was barely tolerated (and frequently wasn’t, with the government repeatedly cracking down on the practice). Even among playwrights, Shakespeare was considered relatively unimportant and common – his contemporary rivals were seen as better authors and dramatists.

So how did he become the icon of the English language and those who declare themselves to be its defenders?

In the 19th century, German philologists were trying to trace the origins of English words, English being a language especially rich in “borrowed” words and patterns. To their surprise, quite a few words were traced back to the works of a single obscure playwright. Once resurrected from the dustbin of history, the Romantic movement considered the plays to be excellent examples of the styles they advocated, and the rest is history.

(This recounting is both extremely over-simplistic and woefully incomplete. Interested parties should perform their own research to learn the complete story.)

Always popular among the masses, yet unwilling to rely merely on least common denominator approval triggers, Shakespeare wrote plays that drew inspiration from (read: stole) the plots ancient stories and common motifs, then clothed them in new and vigorous linguistic patterns. This combination of familiarity and novelty may have had a lot to do with his (initial) popularity, and is part of why he is revered now.

The world of high culture and academia, however, took little notice at first. It gave the plays their due only once it was shown that they were a rich source of academic thesis material; until then, they were seen as vulgar and trite entertainments for the lower classes.

(The astute reader of history will note how this parallels the later treatment of William Blake and his works.)


3 Responses to “Antiestablishmentarianism”

  1. I’ve heard (possibly from Charles Murray) that the idea that Shakespear was much less popular in the past is a myth. Samuel Johnson, his contemporary, is usually quoted about his eternal greatness.

    The part about Shakespeare being the origin of many words is also partly mythical. Some dictionaries (I think Oxford’s) cite his works as their origin, but that’s mostly because they’re so well known and people don’t bother to scour other works to see if they were used earlier. I think LanguageLog had a post on that.

  2. Meh. Lots of people talk about eternal greatness.

    I’m actually building up to a point in a later post about who I think the modern-day equivalent of Shakespeare is.

    I make these points about Shakespeare because I want people to understand precisely what I’ll be saying when I make the comparison.

    I will take a look at LanguageLog as you suggest.

  3. Checking Wikipedia I see that I had confused Samuel Johnson with Ben Jonson, who wrote the first popular English dictionary and quoted Shakespeare more than anyone else (resulting in the belief that Shakespeare had coined those terms).

    I’m not a fan of Shakespeare (or theater in general, I guess) myself, but given that he ran the King’s Company of players, it seems odd to characterize it as one might comic books of the 50s.

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