Poor Shakespeare. He suffers what so often is the fate of all great writers: the reputations of centuries of relative mediocrities have been built on explaining his greatness to us. Thus a prejudice has come into effect that only an illiterate or an enemy of culture would dare question the value of Shakespeare, presumably defying a tradition incorrectly considered Shakespearian when it is in reality the tradition of Shakespeare "experts."
I have no intention of defying tradition, prefering instead to save the Shakespearian tradition from any who may defy it by placing Shakespeare on a pedestal so high that it cannot be reached by the critic. If anything, all of Shakespeare's plays invite criticism and thought - this is accepted to be their universal appeal. Universality is cited often as a primary feature of Shakespeare's value.
The universality of Shakespeare is a soothing excuse for his permanent fame. His defenders will accept almost any interpretation of his works because all interpretations share one common factor: they acknowledge that Shakespeare has written something important and worth interpreting. The one interpretation forbidden to us is the idea that Shakespeare has written something not especially interesting. To discuss Shakespeare is fine, but to question the value of Shakespeare is sacrelige. "Now, now. Don't go too far."
But what is the value of Shakespeare? The real value? Of course his plays are didactic, they introduce universal themes, open the question of the human condition and invite a lifetime of reflection - but what good literature does not? Why does Shakespeare tower above all else? The common sense is not that Shakespeare is a great writer even, but the greatest. The sage of English letters, the representative of insights exceeding the English and embodying the Human. And so on, and so forth.
To some extent his plays are essentially plastic, by which I mean they lend themselves to an unending reinterpretation which has allowed them to survive, at times altered beyond recognition, in modern world theatre. Even the most extreme variations of Shakespeare in New Theatre and Brutalism serve the perpetuation of classical Shakespeare by virtue of introducing Shakespeare to a postmodern public otherwise disinclined to read him in the original.
Yet whether we consider well played Shakespearean theatre or New Theatre or simply the reading of Shakespeare for pleasure and discussion, the question is not which avenue or version of Shakespeare is best, only what the value of any of it is? Didactic value in the strict sense is not greatness, only the path towards the appreciation of greatness. There are books and poems which mesmerize the young mind and send it soaring, remaining forever after sentimental for the mature heart. Shakespeare has for a long time been the victim of his relegation from the Agora to the school classroom. When we speak of his value it is almost always in a didactic sense which belittles not just Shakespeare, but the question of greatness itself.
The problem only deepens when we consider greatness in English letters as a general proposition. One reads it regularly written that Joseph Conrad is a giant of modern English literature. This is rather alarming for anyone remotely familiar with Polish literature. Joseph Conrad is not a genius; he is merely Polish. I cannot think of any bad Polish writer. Perhaps I am the only one? Even the most contemporary Polish writers scribbling away about gender or feminism are, despite their best efforts to conform to Western literary standards, committing the faux pas of being usually more intelligent than the subject warrants and therefore enobling or sanctifying the trash of postmodern literature.
Conrad is a very good Polish writer who happened to write his Polish in English. This normally does not bode well, but apparently English literature is such a deserted island that it was enough for one of the several literary talents in Poland to write in English to give birth to a great English writer. This in turn goes a long way in explaining the value of Shakespeare. Shakespeare was not so much a great writer as an accomplished poet. He managed to take a historically vulgar language rooted in Germanic tribalism and dress it finally in ancient forms. He latinized the English language. This is no small feat, but is it worthy of being called the greatest of all literature?
Conrad is a great writer because he is Polish. The Pole has a radically opposite notion of art to the Englishman. To the English, art is a form of entertainment which helps escape the boredom of leisure. Art can be edifying in English culture, but it is always entertaining. An extreme variation of this is visible in American culture. The artist is therefore assigned celebrity status and a high place in the equivalent of the Royal Court of modern public opinion - but the artist is still nevertheless essentially the Jester. The Jester towers above us because he is close to the King, but he is after all the Jester. His purpose is to entertain. The Anglo-American artist is thus permitted the liberty of being absurd. Art, to the English, is absurdity in polite company. Meaningful reflection is so very often tied to absurdity. Absurdity is the radical extension of humor. Shakespearean humor is the beginning of the long English road to meaningful absurdity.
The Polish artist exists on a set of principles utterly contrary to these. In Poland, the artist is the most deadly serious of all public institutions. This is often the flaw of Poland that, as Cat Mackiewicz had it, only the Pole is so naive to engage in international diplomacy armed with a book of Mickiewicz's verses in hand. Yet even Cat, himself one of Poland's most serious statesmen, published his political writing in literary journals. The Pole, if he writes, paints or composes, knows himself to carry upon his shoulder the literal fate of the entire nation. Where Polish soldiers have failed to win wars against overwhelming odds, the Polish artist has brought nuclear empires crumbling down. There is little room for humor, less for absurdity. Behold the fate of Westerners who watch the greatest of Poland's comedic artists - Bareja: no one ever laughs. They always do not understand.
It is therefore not on account of some mysterious genius that Conrad is brilliant - he is a Polish writer; how could he not be brilliant? The only difference - from the point of view of the English reader - between Conrad and other Polish writers is that Conrad did not require translation and conscientiously spared his English audience the burden of having to know anything about Poland to think that they understood him. Under normal circumstances this should not have gotten Conrad to the pinnacle of English literary recognition. Bluntly stated - Conrad obviously achieved his high stature because English literature on the whole is so bad that it was enough for one decent Polish writer of the XIXth century to to write in English in order to give England its "greatest modern writer."
Shakespeare's fame may have been built on a similar principle. Here is a fellow who did not discover the America of literature in anything he wrote. His protagonists are all decidedly modern, their dilemmas are a product of the dawn of the modern era. The plays are very often set in historical context which gives them just the right gravitas to prevent Shakespeare's often bizarre characters from seeming so insane as to be unbearable. What really makes Shakespeare stand out is that he was capable of doing all of this in English. Shakespeare's English demonstrated that beauty and wisdom were possible in the language of the Island. After Shakespeare, the educated European gentleman could not get by on Latin alone. Shakespeare is to England what so many generally good writers were to the Czechs or the Ukrainians: He brought a provincial language to the level of a Human Art. Again: this is no small feat, but does it make of Shakespeare the greatest writer of them all?
The question itself is rather absurd, but by now it should be obvious that our aim was never to answer it, but to ask by way of this question a very different one: does the unique greatness of Shakespeare not speak to the unique poverty of English literature while also signifying the maleability of the English language? English is unique insofar as it is an organic tongue, given over (like English religion) to the high and the low rather the proper or improper, right or wrong. Shakespeare's great contribution has been to demonstrate that excellence can indeed live in the English language. But beyond that? His universal lessons are just that - universal and thus accessible through means wholly unconnected to Shakespeare.
Don't you see? If the greatest value of a writer is his universality, then the writer's work is not unique, Mankind can get by without it. The universal finds expression in many forms. This may likewise explain why Shakespeare, like English culture in general, is a bit of an endangered species. Conrad will remain a great writer even if England disappears, even if the universe disappears, because the content of his work is not universal. It is Polish. In this respect it contains the same literary appeal that we find in the Gospels: radical personalism, provincialism, subjectivism - the entire universe literally hangs in the balance over whether or not some women bore witness to a dead man risen from the grave in a remote and wholly unimportant part of the world. There is the secret of Conrad's genius and Shakespeare's ...what shall we call it?