Economist and uberblogger Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution is featured in a podcast at Financial Times, Cardiff Garcia’s Alphachat. The podcast mostly about Cowen’s recent manifesto, Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals, but the final moments take the form of a desert island ‘quiz’ for Cowen. At about 1:09:56 Garcia asks Cowen “Shakespeare or your fifteen favorite novels published in your lifetime?” Cowen’s reply:
Shakespeare beats anything you can come up with, unless it’s Shakespeare or everything else. Shakespeare’s gonna’ win. Anything you’re even tempted [...] Not many [novels] do I need to read five times, but there are easily 20, 25 Shakespeare plays I could just read the rest of my life N number of times and not get sick of them.
Really? Is this a real judgment or is it Cowen’s way of affirming the deeply enshrined and utterly conventional view that Shakespeare is beyond a shadow of a doubt the best writer ever?
It’s not that I don’t think Shakespeare is good. He is surely in the first rank. But that he is so very good that he occupies a pinnacle by himself, that’s different.
I don’t believe that. Nor do I disbelieve it. I simply don’t know how to evaluate it as a judgment about quality. That assertion has more to do with mythology than identifiable excellence.
I mean, think about it for a minute: Has the world never seen other writer’s of Shakespeare’s excellence? Are there no other texts as good as his 20 or 25 best plays? How do you make such a judgment?
Now, we can talk about Shakespeare’s cultural influence, and that discussion will be about what he was doing in the context of his times. But that’s a different kind of discussion from one about his excellence.
Finally, in Shakespeare’s case, we’ve got to consider the fact that Shakespeare is just old enough that his work is a bit foreign to us. He uses words that we no longer use and he uses familiar words in obsolete ways. He’s thus difficult, not because he’s deep (though, yes, he IS deep) but because he’s a bit foreign. Maybe one reason Cowen could read and reread him time and again is because he has to do so to become accustomed to the language. But that’s not about excellence. That’s something else. That’s strangeness.
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See also a post from a few years ago, That Shakespeare Thing.