Does Shakespeare suck? Ira Glass, the host of the popular upper-middlebrow radio show “This American Life,” apparently thinks so; he tweeted as much after suffering through a performance of King Lear in Central Park. The backlash has been swift and severe, thus answering the question of whether there remain any literary taboos in the twenty-first century. Apparently, calling the Bard “not relatable” is still enough to get someone branded as a philistine.
@JohnLithgow as Lear tonight: amazing. Shakespeare: not good. No stakes, not relatable. I think I'm realizing: Shakespeare sucks.— Ira Glass (@iraglass) July 28, 2014
I come not to praise Glass, certainly—I think he is a philistine—but also not totally to bury him. For there is always something admirable in speaking with complete honesty about one’s aesthetic reactions, even when those reactions are plainly wrong. Those who automatically praise Shakespeare because they know it is the right thing to say, or because they fear Glass-like ostracism if they say otherwise, may also be philistines—The kind that Nietzsche, in his Untimely Meditations, called the “culture-philistine,” who “fancies that he is himself a son of the muses and a man of culture,” but is actually incapable of a genuine encounter with art. The first rule of any such encounter is honesty: If you fail to find what you are looking for in a work of art, even King Lear, you must be willing to admit it. Then you can move on to the question of whether it is you or King Lear that is deficient.
The truth is that Glass could have summoned some pretty impressive names to testify in his defense. George Bernard Shaw famously hated Shakespeare, complaining that “Shakespeare’s weakness lies in his complete deficiency in the highest spheres of thought,” and offhandedly claiming “I have actually written much better [plays] than As You Like It.” Tolstoy, too, had a low opinion of Shakespeare: “Open Shakespeare … wherever you like, or wherever it may chance, you will see that you will never find ten consecutive lines which are comprehensible, unartificial, natural to the character that says them, and which produce an artistic impression.” Shakespeare’s fame, Tolstoy concluded, was purely a matter of convention: “There is but one explanation of this wonderful fame: it is one of those epidemic ‘suggestions’ to which men have constantly been and are subject.”
But then, to be hated by Shaw and Tolstoy is itself a distinction. For these great writers, Shakespeare stood in their way as an indestructible obstacle, representing a way of writing that they opposed because they could not practice it. To Shaw, whose plays are political and polemical, Shakespeare was not political or polemical enough; to Tolstoy, who strove for organic naturalness, Shakespeare was neither organic nor natural. When T.S. Eliot declared that Hamlet was an artistic failure, he was not trying to make people stop seeing or reading Hamlet; rather, he was trying to get us to change the way we think about what makes a play successful.
Ira Glass, of course, was not engaged in this kind of literary maneuver. He was speaking as a playgoer who found, evidently to his surprise, that King Lear was not providing whatever it was he expected a play to provide—that is what “not relatable” really means. And even here, Glass is not alone or even a pioneer. Until the Shakespeare revival of the eighteenth century, King Lear was regularly performed in England in an edited version, in which Cordelia lived at the end. No less a Shakespearean than Doctor Johnson approved of this change, on the grounds that “the audience will ... always rise better pleased from the final triumph of persecuted virtue.” In other words, Johnson was saying that the devastating conclusion of Lear was not relatable; it did not tell people what they expected a play to tell them. (Similarly, Johnson remarked on the “seeming improbability” of Lear’s conduct in impetuously disowning Cordelia, and explained it by the primitivism of the England of Lear's time; after all, he wrote, such barbarism “would yet be credible if told of a petty prince of Guinea or Madagascar.”)
If audiences today would not stand for such a prettified Lear, that is because our sense of reality, of how the world really works and is supposed to work, has changed since the eighteenth century. Lear is generally considered the most powerful of Shakespeare’s plays precisely because, in its unsparing picture of a violent, unjust, continually brutal world, it conforms so well to what our history teaches us to expect. In other words, Lear is all too relatable, though what it relates is deeply disturbing (as it was for Johnson, who objected to the putting out of Gloucester’s eyes as an unstageable obscenity).
If, in the face of this overwhelming power, an audience member remains simply unmoved—if, like Ira Glass, he just thinks the play fails to work—then something has obviously gone wrong, not with the play, but with the spectator. Exactly what is wrong in this case is something only Glass can answer, but I have my suspicions. Not just Ira Glass, but all of us, are growing increasingly unused to the kind of abstraction that art requires. Lear’s plight is supposed to move us not because it is something that could really happen to us—already in the eighteenth century, Johnson found it incredible—but because it is what Eliot called an “objective correlative,” an artistic formula for producing a certain emotion. The horror of life that Lear communicates is something deeper and more constant than the particular actions of its dramatis personae. The same is true of Oedipus’s self-blinding, or for that matter Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac: We can only appreciate these stories if we imagine our way into them, rather than demanding that they come obediently to us.
Perhaps that is the difference between art and entertainment. And in a culture with so many proliferating sources of entertainment, the work required to encounter art is becoming increasingly unfamiliar. When people stop going to see Shakespeare altogether, we’ll know that we’ve lost this particular part of our humanity—one which we have traditionally honored as among the noblest and most valuable.