Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Just how good is Shakespeare anyhow?

This is a question I think about from time to time [1]. Among those who think about such things there is the belief that Shakespeare is the greatest. The greatest what? It depends: English poet, English writer, maybe even the greatest writer ever.


Consider these assertions:
  1. Sugar Ray Robinson is the greatest welterweight boxer ever.
  2. Pound for pound Sugar Ray Robinson is the greatest boxer ever.
  3. Muhammad Ali is the greatest ever.
  4. Shakespeare is the greatest imaginative writer ever.
I don’t care whether or not it is true, but the first statement seems straight forward to me. Robinson was a boxer and he fought as a welterweight. The assertion rests on his record. The second statement opens with a qualifying phrase, “pound for pound”. The second statement is asserting that Robinson had more skill than any other boxer, including those of other weight classes, but it leaves open the real possibility that, had he fought larger fighters, he might have lost to them because of their superior strength. So, it’s a tricky call. Still the ultimate grounds for judgment are the same as in the first case, athletic prowess.

The third statement is different. Ali because he was one of the best heavyweight boxers ever; the grounds for that judgment are of the same kind as for (1) and (2). That’s why we care about him. But assertions of his greatness transcend his physical skill and include his politics; he refused to enter the military during the war in Vietnam. That’s a different kind of judgment; it’s a judgement of general social and cultural significance of a kind few athletes attain.

What about that last statement, which seems much like the first statement except that it operates in a different arena. While judgments about artistic skill are not impossible, it seems to me that they’re trickier and more problematic than judgments about athletic skill [2]. And Shakespeare, he’s long since been larger than life, a semi-mythic figure. He belongs to the furniture of Anglophone literary culture [3]. And so I believe that assertions of his greatness are not in fact parallel to (1) and (2). They’re more like (3), but with even more mythic resonance.

Given such an appraisal, of course it is easy to justify it. Shakespeare did excellent work on four dramatic genres, comedy, tragedy, history, and romance. His characters, maybe even especially his women. And the language! – which is a bit of a stretch for most of us these days, it’s so old (perhaps we’re awarding it points for exotic distance, Shakespeare as Other).

Was Shakespeare an excellent poet and playwright, a great one? Sure. And his position in cultural firmament stands on that. But not only that. It also stands on the need to have visible touchstone that we – whoever “we” are – can agree on.


[1] See “Bardolatry, Tyler Cowen edition: Is Shakespeare a real person or a mostly mythic being?” New Savanna, April 30, 2017, I quote Cowen as asserting, “Shakespeare is very likely the deepest thinker the human race has produced, so these are worth careful study!”

Also: “That Shakespeare Thing”, New Savanna, July 6, 2011,

[2] I discussed this at some length in “The Hunt for Genius, Part 2: Crackpots, athletes, 4 kinds of judgment, training, and Cultural Context”, New Savanna, October 19, 2017,

[3] This post touches on that, “I was right, Shakespeare isn’t real (Lit Lab 17) [#DH]”, New Savanna, Sept. 30, 2019,

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