US radio host Ira Glass is far from the first writer to rubbish Shakespeare
After catching a performance of King Lear at the Shakespeare in the Park festival in New York last Sunday, Ira Glass, host of the revered US radio show This American Life, ruffled literary feathers by tweeting: “@JohnLithgow as Lear tonight: amazing. Shakespeare: not good. No stakes, not relatable. I think I’m realising: Shakespeare sucks.” Glass is by no means the first high-profile theatregoer to conclude that theauthor of Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and The Tempest sucks. Here are some other notable Shakespeare haters.
Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)
The Russian novelist spent decades wondering why the rest of the world seemed in thrall to Shakespeare’s plays when he considered them “trivial and positively bad”. Refusing to recognise Shakespeare “even as an average author”, he argued that King Lear, in particular, “does not satisfy the most elementary demands of art”. Chekhov suspected his compatriot was intimidated by Shakespeare. Unlike other writers, whom Tolstoy viewed as children, “Shakespeare irritates him because he is a grownup writer, and does not write in the way that Tolstoy does”, Chekhov said.
Robert Greene (1558-92)
Shakespeare was not unhampered by criticism during his own lifetime. Writer and noted rogue Robert Greene, a terrible snob when it came to actors writing plays, put out a pamphlet attacking a certain “upstart crow, beautified with our feathers” who “supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you”. He dismissed Shakespeare as an absolute Johannes Factotum” – or jack-of-all-trades – who “is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey”. Ouch.
John Dryden (1631-1700)
Although he was writing a mere half century after Shakespeare’s death, the poet and critic John Dryden, channelling the frustration of future schoolchildren everywhere, observed that the English language “is so much refin’d since Shakespeare’s time, that many of his words, and more of his phrases, are scarce intelligible”.
The French writer and philosopher of the Enlightenment, unmotivated, surely, by any petty rivalry with the English, once referred to the Shakespearean canon as “an enormous dunghill” that contained “a few pearls”. Elsewhere, he wrote that Shakespeare “was a savage… who had some imagination. He has written many happy lines; but his pieces can please only at London and in Canada”.
George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)
Perhaps Shakespeare’s most gleefully antagonistic critic, Shaw famously wrote: “With the single exception of Homer, there is no eminent writer, not even Sir Walter Scott, whom I can despise so entirely… It would be positively a relief to me to dig him up and throw stones at him.”
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