Most things we write come out of a moment of enthusiasm
In this essay I will argue that William Shakespeare undoubtedly has a hegemonic position in the cultural literary canon that has been cemented over the last few centuries. Shakespeare is perhaps the most influential writer in the English language. He has written numerous plays and sonnets that are studied to this day and scrutinised by students, both in high school and in tertiary situations.
If you Google the term “the greatest writer and poet of all time”, the very first item on the list is on Shakespeare, that was published on the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) website (Google, 2010). Again, if “the greatest poet of all time” is searched, the first five entries are about Shakespeare (Google, 2010). These results from one of the biggest search engines alone could attest to Shakespeare’s popularity. They could, but they do not. The problem however is that all these Google search results are forum message boards and weblog postings from across the internet that have varying levels of seriousness, academia, intellect and evidence. Having results from discussions and debates is understandable, as defining someone or something as the ‘greatest’ is a very subjective issue, and comes down to individual taste. Those that do define Shakespeare as the ‘greatest writer ever’ are often called Bardolators, followers of Bardolatry. This worship can be justified however, as Shakespeare wrote all of his work in iambic pentameter and while many find a problem with Shakespeare and how he is represented, for most his greatest crime is writing in an old-style English that can be a challenge to comprehend.
In the Oxford Dictionary of English ‘hegemony’ is defined as “leadership or dominance, especially by one state or social group over others” (Soanes and Stevenson, 2003, p. 805). The word hegemony originated in the mid 16th century from the Greek word hegemonia, which itself is a combination of hegemon ‘leader’ and hegeisthai ‘to lead’ (Soanes and Stevenson, 2003, p. 805). Coincidentally it was the late 16th century that Shakespeare was alive. The term ‘literary canon’ has been around much longer however and was originally used for books of the Bible that were deemed genuine and having authority, but was later extended to other writings. The literary canon now includes works by Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, Dante, and many other authors who are seen to be writers of the classics and worthy of serious academic attention. Writers who have been given canonical status are generally celebrated names with universal acclaim (Stevens, 2007). Shakespeare does hold a hegemonic position within the literary canon, and it can be justified in many ways. He had a considerable amount of creative writing ability but Shakespeare’s hegemony could simply be attributed to a popularity that has been steadily increasing over the hundreds of years since his death with the help of celebrity endorsements that tend to speak louder than negative criticism. Another point to be made is that Shakespeare was not really regarded as hegemonic over his contemporaries during his lifetime and has only been elevated to that status since his death. Again this is more of a popularity issue than one of who is the best word manipulator.
Shakespeare as a man still has a slight air of mystery to him as his first biography was not written until some time after his death. Over time, fact has become intertwined with legend but his general life story has been more or less puzzled together from secondary documents. Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564. Between 1582 and 1586 he worked as an actor, stage manager and playwright in and around Stratford before deciding to go to London. When he arrived in London in 1587 he worked at ‘The Theatre’ as a stage manager and actor often performing in court. He began writing his now published works in the 1590s including ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’, ‘The Merchant of Venice’, ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre was built in 1598 where he and another renowned actor at the time, Richard Burbage, lead an acting company who performed Shakespeare’s acts. Shakespeare continued to write all his life, producing his tragedies such as ‘Macbeth’, ‘King Lear’, ‘Julius Caesar’ and ‘Othello’ in his later years. Shakespeare returned to Stratford-upon-Avon in 1611 and died there in 1616 (Shakepeare, n.d. backcover).
Alfred Harbage has said that people idolise Shakespeare to the point of it being a ‘quasi-religious idealism’ (Drakakis, 2002, p. 2), and indeed Bardolatry has been referred to as the national religion of England (Holderness, 1988, p. xi). Bardolatry is simply defined as “excessive admiration of Shakespeare” (Soanes and Stevenson, 2003, p. 130) and it could be implied that this admiration is unjustified. Bardolatry became very popular during the Romantic era in literature, between 1798 and 1830, that was highlighted by the likes of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and John Keats. The authors of this time mimicked and idolised Shakespeare. Keats found Shakespeare to be universal, and admired his realism, and the “ability to create high drama from human emotion rather than outlandish deeds” (Englishhistroy.net, 2004). Shakespeare has even been attributed with “the invention of the human” (Lind, 1999) and Allen Bloom’s book Shakespeare’s Politics argues that Shakespeare is an important ethical and political teacher (Lind, 1999).
“In four centuries William Shakespeare has gone from being one of three great Elizabethan playwrights, to being the greatest Elizabethan playwright, to being the greatest poet in English, to being the greatest writer in any language. Like Abraham Lincoln or Thomas Jefferson, whose authority can be invoked on behalf of practically any proposition or cause, King James’ court playwright has been elevated to the status of a benevolent demigod.” (Lind M, 1999)
Bardolators are very faithful to Shakespeare and it is very difficult to convince one that Shakespeare was anything but a literary and theatrical genius, a brilliant actor and director, and someone who deserves anything less that total idolatry. Brian Vickers tries to convince anti-Shakespeareans of this in his book ‘William Shakespeare: A Critical Heritage’ in which he states;
“As some … have illiberally endeavoured to shake the poetic character of our immortal Bard (too deeply indeed rooted in the heart to be affected by them) it is recommended that those not sufficiently established in their dramatic faith to peruse a work … by which they will with much satisfaction be convinced that [England] may justly boast the honour of producing the greatest dramatic poet in the world.” (Vickers B, 2005, p. 344)
Vickers is clearly writing from a biased point of view but with the conviction of a Christian trying to convert an Atheist. As with all pious thoughts, there will always be people who disagree but those against Shakespeare’s hegemony will have a difficult time shaking a firm Bardolator’s faith.
In modern times Shakespeare has, can and will be an interdisciplinary subject and has a place in many areas of study rather than simply English Literature. Shakespeare’s plays have been reviewed and studied in areas such as “post-structuralist linguistics, historiographical research, psychoanalytic theories and feminist sexual politics” (Holderness 1985, p xiv) amongst others and Holderness is of the opinion that this interdisciplinary study simply maintains and endorses Shakespeare’s culturally hegemonic position. It could be argued that Holderness himself is maintaining Shakespeare’s hegemony by writing his book, and his others on Shakespeare, in the first place. Allen Bloom could have a good lead in saying that Shakespeare is an important political teacher (Lind, 1999) as many of Shakespeare’s plays had political characters, particularly royalty. Some of his plays such as Richard III, Henry IV (parts one and two), Henry V, Macbeth, Hamlet and King Lear all focus on the crown and the struggles that are endured for it. Shakespeare explored questions about the “legitimacy of political authority and the search for the ideal king” (Barnes, 1998) and contemporary scholars have also highlighted Shakespeare’s interest in what happens to individuals and nations when the monarchy exercises absolutism while rejecting royal responsibility (Barnes, 1998).
While Shakespeare now has a hegemonic position that he did not hold during his lifetime, there was something in his writing that did separate him from his contemporaries and that is that all of Shakespeare’s work was written in iambic pentameter. To understand what iambic pentameter is, it must be first understood that words are made up of syllables and these syllables have strong and weak ‘stresses’. Iambic means there is a pattern in the syllables of weak stress, strong stress, weak stress, strong stress. One iambus of these stresses, i.e. a weak stress and then a strong stress, is called a foot. Pentameter means that there are five feet in each line of poetry or prose. Therefore there are ten syllables in each line of writing with a pattern applied to the stresses. This is very difficult to purposefully write and it is this perhaps that sets Shakespeare apart from other writers, though he is certainly not the only one to have used iambic pentameter. John Milton, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Elizabeth Barrett Browning were all poets who used iambic pentameter at some point in their writings, but Shakespeare was one who did it consistently through his work. The danger of using iambic pentameter constantly in writing is that it can begin to sound monotonous. To avoid this monotony Shakespeare also included other meters and rhythms in his work, often reserving iambic pentameter for his more well-to-do characters while the lower class spoke in prose (Jamieson, n.d.). This served to reserve Shakespeare for the upper social classes and the well educated, or at least appeal to them. This appeal was sometimes a subconscious one, such as the special rhythm given to certain characters, but there were instances where Shakespeare was simply writing to appease and good naturedly tease the monarchy, as so many successful writers had to do in that period in history.
This usage of Shakespeare as a tool to separate the social classes is apparent in many other ways as well. In a copy of ‘The Complete Works of William Shakespeare’ it states
“The richest heritage of all English Literature – the plays and poetry of the immortal Shakespeare – is gathered here in two special volumes…These two handsome volumes are a superb addition to the library of every well-educated person” (Shakespeare, n.d, dustjacket).
It can be noted how Shakespeare has been used to give status and distinction between social classes, as traditionally only the well educated people read or studied Shakespeare. From 1970 to 1993 Shakespeare’s portrait appeared on the 20 pound note in the United Kingdom. In the preface of Graham Holderness’ book ‘The Shakespeare Myth’, Holderness writes that the bank note is a pedestal that has been adorned with the faces of the British monarchy such as Henry V, Richard III and Elizabeth I and this royalty have been surmounted by a pile of books! According to Holderness the banknote as a pedestal expresses immense and lasting authority, prestige and influence, and in his image Shakespeare is relaxed and contemplative. From his book the reader gets the impression that Holderness believes Shakespeare is contemptuous of his position and the honours bestowed on him. The bound volumes and manuscript on the note also secure Shakespeare’s place within the literary rather than theatrical arts, something which Holderness again seems to disagree with. Publishing Shakespeare on the banknote also has an interesting exchange of values. Shakespeare as a cultural token enhances the material worth of the note, while the monetary value of twenty pounds makes Shakespeare more valuable as a “symbol of high art and national culture” (Holderness, 1985, p. xi).
It is therefore concluded that Shakespeare has a hegemonic position in the literary canon and within western culture. This position is well deserved and unshakeable. Even if Shakespeare’s poems and plays are a bit befuddling at first they have been well received and have a strong following of academics, scholars and common readers who simply find pleasure in these extraordinary creative arts. Bardolatry is continuously growing in popularity and the immortal Bard will continue to inspire and teach. Shakespeare is a universal character in history and has found a place in many different areas of study when his work has been scrutinised by many different experts. When Shakespeare died in 1616 at Stratford-upon-Avon he was blissfully unaware that four hundred years later people would still be admiring, arguing, debating, studying, translating, researching and idolising his plays, sonnets and poems.
Barnes D.R. 1998, “Kingship – Introduction“, eNotes.com, viewed 7 July 2010 <http://www.enotes.com/shakespearean-criticism/kingship>
Drakakis, J 2002, “Alternative Shakespeare”, volume 2, edited by Hawkes T, Routledge, New York
Englishhistory.net 2004, “The Life of John Keats”, viewed 6 July 2010, <http://englishhistory.net/keats/life.html>
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Google 2010, search query “the greatest poet of all time”, viewed 2 July 2010 <http://www.google.com.au/search?hl=en&safe=off&q=”the+greatest+poet+of+all+time”&aq=f&aqi=&aql=&oq=&gs_rfai=>
Holderness, G 1988, “The Shakespeare Myth”, Manchester University Press, United Kingdom
Jamieson, L n.d., Introducing Iambic Pentameter, About.com, viewed 7 July 2010 <http://shakespeare.about.com/od/shakespeareslanguage/a/i_pentameter.htm>
Lind M 1999, The Dangers of Bardolatry, viewed 6 July 2010 <http://www.newamerica.net/publications/articles/1999/the_dangers_of_bardolatry>
Shakespeare, W n.d., The Complete Works of William Shakespeare Arranged In their Chronological Order, edited by Clark W. G. & Wright W. A., Nelson Doubleday Inc., United States of America
Soanes, C & Stevenson, A 2003, Oxford Dictionary of English Second Edition, William Clowes Ltd., Great Britain
Stevens, C 2007, The Literary Canon, The Literary Encyclopedia, viewed 5 July 2010 <http://www.litencyc.com/php/stopics.php?rec=true&UID=158>
Vickers, B 1979, ‘William Shakespeare: A Critical Heritage’, volume 3, Routledge, New York, p 355
Copyright J Cox 2010