Shakespeare’s anniversary celebrations have missed the point

Joanna Taylor 28 April 2016

I have a confession to make. I don’t like Hamlet. It may well be the greatest play by the world’s greatest playwright, but it just leaves me cold.

That’s not to say I dislike Shakespeare, anything but that. Last year, I spent a whole term studying his plays and poetry, and it was utterly fantastic. I love the emotions of Macbeth, the slapstick humour of The Comedy of Errors, the violence of Titus Andronicus, and the language of Julius Caesar. I’m lucky to have explored so much, and to have discovered plays I love.

This year, with the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death recently past, it’s easy to gush. But I can’t help but feel that the prosaic reverence with which our national poet is so often treated is what kills his appeal for so many people. It’s a major danger this year, and it flies in the face of everything that this celebration should stand for.

My first experiences of Shakespeare were the same as that of most young people: stilted, stuttered readings, limited discussion and a prevailing attitude of classroom resentment. You can blame apathetic responses to Shakespeare on many things: try to see it in performance, we’re told, find a modern adaptation, it’s all about the cast. But that all comes down to personal opinion. Some people love Shakespeare on the page, some on the stage; some people love the language, others the plots (though their attribution to Shakespeare himself is often more dubious).

It doesn’t matter what you like. In fact, it doesn’t even matter if you read the complete works cover-to-cover and hate every minute of it. Because ultimately, opinions are good, and it’s great to engage with a writer who, love him or loathe him, has had an immense impact on British culture. One of the best things that studying Shakespeare at university has taught me is not to be afraid of my own opinions.

This year’s calendar is bursting with events celebrating the Bard: the BBC’s star-studded ‘best bits’, Richard II in the House of Commons, a major display at the British Library, and more plays performed than I could possibly list. But Shakespeare’s legacy isn’t just the plays and poems — it’s Brave New World and The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Lion King, and 10 Things I Hate About You. It’s all there, it’s all important, and it’s all worth reading, watching, critiquing, and considering. Does Shakespeare deserve the legacy he has? Well, that’s for you to decide.