Is Shakespeare for everyone?

title page of Macbeth
Photo by Matt Riches on Unsplash

Is Shakespeare for everyone? Of course he is! Absolutely!

I just wish people would stop saying it.

I mean, I understand why people say it. I say it myself, because I believe it. There should be no artificial barriers to one’s enjoyment of Shakespeare: No cultural snobbery or intimidation, no terrible productions, no high-priced tickets, no uninspired teaching. In Shakespeare’s day, his plays — and plays by others, and theater generally — really were for everyone. All levels of society congregated to see and hear plays in performance, to share gossip and news, and to rub literal and metaphorical elbows. Not just a source for entertainment, Shakespeare’s theater was the internet of its day.

But beginning in the 19th century, theater (and opera and symphonies) became co-opted by the upper class who wanted to keep socially — often meaning ethnically and economically — “unacceptable” people out of the theater, turning what was originally popular culture into “high” culture and using the arts as a tool of status and exclusion. Audiences became segregated, with poor people banished to the upper balconies and frequently forced to use separate entrances designed to allow rich people to get to their seats uncontaminated by the great unwashed. In many venues, these barriers remain in place.

Worse, as a by-product of imperialism, Shakespeare was imposed on non-English speakers in different countries, held up as the best playwright in the world with the understanding that only by learning his plays and accepting his greatness — and, by extension, the greatness of the English language and Anglo-European culture — could one become truly civilized. (One could also argue — as Madeline Sayet has, persuasively — that “the immense amount of space [Shakespeare’s] work currently takes up is an ongoing tool of colonization,” which is an important but different conversation.) Shakespeare was reserved for elites, and only those who proved themselves worthy could enjoy him.

So I get it: “Shakespeare is for everyone” is an important correction, a reminder that Shakespeare’s plays were written to be popular entertainments, designed to appeal to everyone from the groundlings to the nobility.

But I worry that “Shakespeare is for everyone” nowadays feels less like a promise and more like a threat; the implication being that if you don’t like him, there’s something wrong with you. This past semester, an acting student told me on the first day of class that he knows he’s “supposed” to like Shakespeare but he’s never really “gotten” him, and that appreciating (and speaking) Shakespeare feels like too much work and isn’t worth the trouble. (I sympathized, and told him I feel the same way about eating lobster.) It’s my greatest institutional fear, that cultural pressure to appreciate a thing creates barriers to constructive engagement. As a teacher, director, and actor, I never want to bully someone into liking Shakespeare, and always worry that a boring production or dry lecture will turn off the listener and shrivel up any budding interest in Shakespeare.

Because the truth is, Shakespeare isn’t for everyone, and it’s disingenuous to suggest that it is. Nothing is for everyone: Personally, I don’t like opera, baseball, or video games, and in London at the turn of the 17th century, there were tens of thousands of people who undoubtedly preferred to skip another one of Shakespeare’s epics and head to the bear-baiting pits instead.

It is often said that “Shakespeare teaches us what it means to be human,” a hagiographic overstatement so sweeping I honestly don’t even know what it means. All art has that potential ability — to reveal ourselves to ourselves — and yes, Shakespeare wrote some beautiful and penetrating insights…but he also wrote some plays that really aren’t great, and some problematic nonsense that maybe shouldn’t be staged ever again.

So what’s the alternative? I prefer saying “Shakespeare is for anyone who wants him.” For many reasons (i.e., the comedies aren’t funny, the language is incomprehensible, the kings and their nobles are confusing, the references archaic), Shakespeare is demonstrably not for everyone. And that’s okay. But I’ll argue till my dying day that he can and should be made available to anyone who wants him, with many different entry points for people of all levels and interests, whether they be live productions, fascinating lectures, compelling museum exhibitions, excellent films and videos, or even, dare I suggest, pop-up books. One of the first steps in appreciating Shakespeare, it seems to me, is being honest about his output, for we can only truly appreciate his greatness by being discerning enough to recognize the parts that don’t measure up, and understanding that no matter what we do, he still won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.

Oh, and that acting student of mine? I’m happy to report that three weeks later, he told me, “Well, I hate to say it, but I’m loving Shakespeare.” Thankfully, I was able to demonstrate that Shakespeare was definitely for him.