The Rhetoric of Bardolatry

Marking season is upon us again and I am drowning under a mountain of essays. This semester I taught Shakespeare, which I do regularly, and one of the things I keep noticing in my student’s papers is the insistent genuflection to the “immortal Bard.” Students insist that Shakespeare is the greatest poet of all time and that he is the greatest writer the world has ever seen… even though I’ve never, ever, EVER said anything like that.  Hell, I try to get them to analyze Shakespeare, not to propagandize for him.

Does he look like he needs a propagandist at this point? Look at that smug bastard!

There are two possibilities, as I see it. On the one hand, the students could actually think that Shakespeare is the greatest writer of all time. They might have Shakespeare posters on their walls, books and books on Shakespeare in their apartments, and when they sit down to watch TV, they pull out The Hollow Crown instead of Game of Thrones.  Yes, I do think this is a possibility and those students I don’t worry about quite so much as the others. That is, on the other hand, I think there are those who are saying it because that is what you are “supposed to do” when talking about Shakespeare.

I really worry about this latter possibility because it exposes one of the essential flaws of an education in the humanities, which is that rhetorical mimicry doesn’t equate learning.

Though some rhetorical mimicry does result in sounding awesome.

It is obvious where it comes from  — it comes from high school teachers and critics and parents and everyone else who say, drone-like, that Shakespeare is the greatest playwright and writer of all time. As they say these words, though, many of those same teachers and critics and parents and so forth will mutter up their sleeves that they never particularly “got” Shakespeare and they never really liked all those “thous” and “forsooths.” But dammit, Shakespeare is the best poet of all time. Everyone says so.

Rather than be the one to reject Shakespeare, it is easier just to repeat what everyone else says and just get on with life. Yeah, write the paper, say how great he is, and then get out of high school and never, ever read Shakespeare again. Certainly never go to see a performance. Who needs to see guys in pumpkin shorts, anyhow?

The glass of fashion and the mould of form…

What have students learned in that situation? They’ve learned that the text isn’t really important, nor are they. What is important isn’t even the Shakespeare Industrial Complex because they aren’t going to buy more Shakespeare editions or go see the latest version of Macbeth. What the students learn is that literary analysis and the very concept of “literature” is a game that you can cheat your way through. You can say the right words, get your mark, and get passed on.

A student doesn’t have to believe what they write. Rather than letting the words and discourse shape their minds in a way that interrogates and analyzes the authority of the past, it’s probably just easier to accept the authority of tradition and get on with life. If that’s the case, we’re all screwed. Unthinking adherence to tradition isn’t analysis. It’s willful ignorance.

Submit to my mustache.

So, future students, or past, or whomever is reading this… If you ever write an essay wherein you talk about the transcendent power of Shakespeare’s glorious verse, please, ask yourself – do you really believe that? Are you secretly wondering about the next Shakespeare production in the West End, Off Broadway, or at Stratford? Do you sit down with a mug of cocoa and read Macbeth on a quiet winter’s night? 

Because if you don’t, then why are you saying it at all?


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