Summer 2014 ended without an answer to an important cultural question: Do the dramatic works of William Shakespeare, in particular the sprawling tragedy King Lear, suck?
That was the question at the end of July, when public-radio personality Ira Glass tweeted praise at Lear portrayer John Lithgow but (presumably because the Swan of Avon lacks a Twitter handle) took the playwright harshly to task: “@JohnLithgow as Lear tonight: amazing,” Glass wrote. “Shakespeare: not good. No stakes, not relatable. I think I’m realizing: Shakespeare sucks.”#ad#
That slam might have passed quietly except that the Anglosphere in the last few months has been seeing a King Lear storm. “In Chicago and New York, in London and Toronto and Washington, actors in shredded costumes are raging on tempest-tossed sets as stories unfold around them of woebegone fathers and callous children and realms ankle deep in stage blood,” Washington Post critic Peter Marks writes. “The theater world, in short, is having a ‘King Lear’ moment.” That kind of trend could be just an accident of scheduling, but it’s also notable that among the early responses to the suicide of Robin Williams was wide circulation of a 2013 Reddit interview in which the comedian identified Lear’s Fool as his dream role; and various commentators on Williams’s death, among them the late Joan Rivers, gushed about how he should have done King Lear. (Whether the idea was for Williams to play the fool or the foolish fond old king himself is not clear. They are, as the saying goes, all equal now.)
Glass came between the dragon and its wrath with his very broad Shakespeare put-down. (In a subsequent tweet he elevated leading anti-Stratfordian Mark Rylance to Lithgowian status while doubling down on his claim that the the playwright was “unemotional” in addition to being not relatable.) His cult-leader status did earn Glass a few nods of agreement, such as one from the son of a famous economist who took the opportunity to curl up and get a pat on the head from a bigshot. The negative responses, however, came not single spies but in battalions. A large force of ordinary citizens lined up to tell Glass he was wrong.
That seems to have settled the matter on Twitter, and Glass didn’t do his argument any favors by repeatedly invoking the Hollywood hack’s adjective “relatable.” But a Twitter hubbub doesn’t prove the value of a play one way or the other. “Ultimately there is no test of literary merit except survival, which is itself an index to majority opinion,” George Orwell wrote in a defense of Shakespeare way back in 1947, when women’s roles were played by beardless boys.
Orwell was responding to a very famous attack on Shakespeare by Leo Tolstoy, who was no slouch himself. Like Glass, Tolstoy took Lear as his specific target. “Every man of our society and time, from the first period of his conscious life, has been inoculated with the idea that Shakespeare is a genius, a poet, and a dramatist, and that all his writings are the height of perfection,” the Anna Karenina author wrote. “Yet, however hopeless it may seem, I will endeavor to demonstrate in the selected drama — King Lear — all those faults equally characteristic also of all the other tragedies and comedies of Shakespeare, on account of which he not only is not representing a model of dramatic art, but does not satisfy the most elementary demands of art recognized by all.”
Tolstoy too found few supporters, but his 22,000-word attack has stood the test of time. (A slam in fewer than 140 characters is just a sneer; a novella-length evisceration at least shows respect for the target.) And he wasn’t alone. Proponents of French neoclassical theater disdained Shakespeare for his constant violations of the Aristotelian unities, dramatic balance, and strict rationality that gave French drama its serene charm. A young James Joyce, wowed by the breakthroughs of psychology and realism in the dramas of Henrik Ibsen, accused Shakespeare of being strictly literary rather than dramatic. That Hamlet’s dilemma is not fully dramatized, that King Lear is unwieldy to stage, and that Shakespeare could have used an editor have never been controversial points. “The players have often mentioned it as an honor to Shakespeare, that in his writing, whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out a line,” Shakespeare contemporary Ben Jonson said. “My answer hath been, ‘Would he had blotted a thousand,’ which they thought a malevolent speech.”
It’s probably a sign of a more individualized, more sappily disposable age that today’s paramount concern is whether audiences can relate to the characters. Given the types of characters contemporary audiences do relate to, it’s still a very weird criticism. You could make Hamlet a tragic robot unable to grasp human emotion, Macbeth a broken-down ballplayer looking for one more chance, Rosalind a tough girl who dispatches her uncle’s henchmen with a crossbow and wire fu, Coriolanus a wisecracking green superhero, and so on. Some of these things have probably been done already. (There’s been a high-school-basketball Othello, for example, and a fast-food Macbeth.) Whatever you do, you’re not allowed to bore the audience, any more than you were in the 16th century.
My own life path has persuaded me that King Lear is in fact more than just relatable: It is a work of documentary realism capturing in unsparing detail what life is truly like for a man with three daughters. But life-path familiarity is no more valid than any other mark of relatability. During August’s pro-Shakespeare counteroffensive, the Wall Street Journal’s Perri Klass also drew on Lithgow’s Lear (from New York’s free Shakespeare in the Park production by the Public Theater) to limn the senescence and death of her very accomplished mother, in an article with the book-club-ready title “Shakespeare as a Life Coach.” Klass, a pediatrician and journalist, writes beautifully, and the result is both relatable and emotional.
“For me, in this stage of my life, it’s a play about taking care — or failing to take proper care — of an aging parent,” Klass writes, “about watching that aging parent lose the pieces of himself, and about the ways that grown-up and even middle-aged siblings replay their rivalries and relationships as they watch their parents grow old.”
I accepted long ago that my existence would play out in the shadow of the Baby Boomers’ life rhythms, but it doesn’t seem likely that the surge in older people caring for much-older parents explains King Lear’s enduring appeal to audiences. In fact, until it briefly became an issue, I would have thought King Lear’s general appeal was both clear and ample: There is a fairy tale opening involving a king and an inheritance. There are women who hate each other deep down, as well as their male stooges. An important supporting character gets his eyes poked out on the stage, and the plot turns on a failed-rescue buildup and reversal that modern people may think was first used in Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining. The betrayal of the senile father is affecting not just because of its bloody results but because it originates in a wholly domestic situation — over which child has to endure the old parent’s presence — that I suspect people will still recognize in another 500 years. The play is theoretically ungainly because it jams the story of Lear and his daughters together with the story of an illegitimate son’s scheme to undermine his half-brother, a fusion that dilutes the dramatic unity but enhances the overall spectacle. It plays very well, or so I thought.
It’s important to remember that the greatest violence to Shakespeare has been done by schools. A happy few works of syllabus literature (The Great Gatsby seems to be the most recent) still manage to retain a hold on public affection, but for most art, the good-for-you scent of required classroom reading is death. Shakespeare has been around longer than some, and he has been subjected to particularly cruel academic tortures, from Harold Bloom’s allegation that he “invented the human” to the standard classroom teaching that the storm on the heath in King Lear is some kind of existential symbol fraught with dread theological meaning.
Performers are mercifully free of such garbage, because they have a clear job to do. They have to entertain an audience, and they recognize how little subtext ultimately matters. Sometimes a script is the way it is because some bit of stage business worked in some other show, because some actor wanted more lines, because some patron or investor insisted on a particular addition. A storm on a heath may or may not dramatize deep ideas about a godless universe, but it damn well had better convince the audience that it’s a storm, and that you don’t want to be homeless during a storm.
Everybody, even people who are not deposed kings, can relate to that idea. A good fictional character is both relatable and totally alien. That’s pretty much the point of a good fictional character. It is indeed impossible to prove or disprove literary merit, but the relatability of Old Swanny’s creations can be demonstrated in various ways: Actors still like to play them; people still like to read about them; and audiences still sometimes pack the house to watch them — even when, unlike Ira Glass, they have to pay for the tickets.
— Tim Cavanaugh is news editor of National Review Online. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
Correction: An earlier version of this article identified Leo Tolstoy as a Nobel Laureate. In fact, though he was eligible for the first ten year’s of the Prize for Literature’s existence, he never won.