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Shakespeare and the other great writers- overrated?

  1. Jul 26, 2012 #1
    Edit: I wish this message board would let me edit the title, but it won't. I should have titled this "Shakespeare and the other famous writers hundreds of years ago- overrated?" I should not have called them great writers in the title because my thesis is that they weren't so great.

    I have always thought that the most famous writers before the 18th century were overrated. The following is a list of some of the writers that I think are overrated: Shakespeare, John Milton, Virgil, and Dante.

    The first reason that I think that the stated writers before the 18th century were overrated is that I have read parts of some of their works, and they are not entertaining to me.

    Secondly, I think that there was far less competition before the 18th century than there is now. For one thing, only a tiny percentage of the population was literate back then. There were no major publishing markets. Shakespeare owned the globe theater, and that is why his work was so widely distributed. There was little competition in the 16th and 17th centuries. There were few if any bookstores in those days. Virgil wrote the Aenid, but how many epic poems were made in antiquity? I think very little. I believe that whoever wrote a long poem that was at least a little bit entertaining and could afford to widely disseminate it would be famous.

    I think that people just like to say that Shakespeare, Milton, Virgil, and Dante were great writers to sound like they are well-educated and smart.
    Last edited: Jul 26, 2012
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  3. Jul 26, 2012 #2


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    It may be quite true that there are MANY people you or I might meet who don't really enjoy Milton or Virgil but say these poets are great primarily for the reason you give: wanting to sound educated. But that's not the case with everybody. I think there's another part to the story you are overlooking.

    I fell in love with Dante's poetry only after, as a young person, backpacking around in Italy for a while and picking up some Italian. And then I happened to hear passages of the Inferno and the Paradiso recited. And could understand them in Italian.

    It is great. It's a kick. For me (all judgment of greatness is personal and from the heart of the individual.)

    About Milton and Virgil, I can't say. Never felt drawn to them. My Latin isn't good enough that I could listen to Virgil recordings and understand the spoken verse. Poetry is the human voice. It is not to read. It is to read aloud, or better: to recite aloud from memory.
    If it doesn't make you want to do that it is not "turning you on" the way it should and from your personal viewpoint, to your heart, it is not great.

    I'd call Shakespeare a DRAMATIST not a poet. His sonnets are interesting and memorable poems but what he really did best was PLAYS. My love of Shakespeare comes from having seen several of his plays performed, up close in small theaters, by young actors studying in the drama departments of the local college and the nearby university.
    There are some scenes you (I, we) just don't forget.
    There are some lines that remain in the mind. That recall the feel of the situation and the actor saying them.
    Drama is meant to be PERFORMED, not read silently, not even read aloud, or recited, but performed.
    Shakespeare also wrote some pretty fine SONGS for the actors in his plays to sing.

    About Shakespeare plays in film, a lot of it in my view is bad and won't survive. Branagh did a horrible job with Hamlet, I think. I couldn't watch it. But I liked what he and Emma Thompson did with *Much Ado about Nothing*. If you have NetFlix you might put it on your queue and see if you enjoy it.

    I think Shakespeare plays will live as long as people do real stage acting in recognizable English language, which is probably for a long time. I think passages of Dante will be loved and recited aloud by heart as long as people speak Italian.
  4. Jul 26, 2012 #3
    One thing I need in order to understand why you feel Shakespeare is over-rated is examples of writers you think are actually the best.

    If you could post samples of say, three, writers you think are better than Shakespeare it would tell me something.

    When I say samples I mean it literally: pick one paragraph from each of the three and post it here.
  5. Jul 27, 2012 #4
    You're going to have to come up with a better reason than that.

    There was competition but probably not as much. Today the problem is that there is so much information that it's very difficult to rise about the froth. Back in those days the problem was reversed few people read so it was very hard for you to get anyone to listen to you. Seneca's plays were probably never even acted. The average book costs huge amounts of money before the printing press to produce maybe 10,000 dollars in today's money so you had to be the best of the best in order to be published.

    There were quite a lot of epic poets back then. Just read Petronius' Satyricon and you'll encounter several names of poets who are completely forgotten. Before writing you had to convince more or less a cult to memorize your poem, a very difficult task. When writing came around, again you had the problem that publishing was so flat out expensive that only the absolute best of the best got published.

    It is certainly true that there is quite a lot of snobbery in the Academic world. I happen to think that Shakespeare is not that good but Milton and Dante deserve their praise.
  6. Jul 27, 2012 #5


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    BluemoonKY, you give the impression that you think that writers (and, I presume everyone else) should be "rated" based on what everyone else thinks of them!

    And why would you think that saying that would sound "well-educated and smart"? Why Shakespeare rather than, say, Christopher Marlowe?
  7. Jul 27, 2012 #6


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    Shakespeare wasn't much played in much of the 17th century, you had a lot of Jacobean playwrights at that time, totally overshadowing him.

    Shakespeare's plays reasserted themselves in the 18th century, driving a lot of other playwrights to oblivion.
  8. Jul 27, 2012 #7
    Yes; that is part of the reason why I think that the greatest writers today are superior to the greatest writers of antiquity, the middle ages, and the modern period before the 18th century.

  9. Jul 27, 2012 #8
    Just a minor point because I'm not really all that interested in this debate. Shakespeare didn't start out owning the globe theater. He had to fight tooth and nail until he made it to the top, just like any other actor today. He started out an unknown just like everyone else. And there was a lot of competing acting companies back then, but so many of them had to fold because they just weren't popular.
  10. Jul 27, 2012 #9


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    I remember learning that. It's an important point. His plays fell into obscurity for 100 years or so and then were "rediscovered".
    I vaguely recall Samuel Johnson had something to do with this. Maybe to understand why his plays have such sustained life we'd have to go back and learn what motivated their revival.

    Another factor is why has Shakespeare been so popular in German translation? The old Shake is huge in some other languages. Why?

    It's sometimes said that poetry is what does NOT come across in translation. The translation of a poem has to be a new poem in its own right or it is not poetry at all.

    So for Shake to be a hit in German, it has to be not his *poetry* but his theater. The poetry is fine OK and lovely but there's more. He sets up these complex emotional situations involving men and women with strong personalities that you would like to know. You would like to know these people or you think you already know them. And the psychology of the situation is dangerous and/or extremely funny and/or sexy and/or fatal. People's egos and sexual and power relationships are not simple---he peels them and plays with them and runs thru variation and variation of them. I'm just sayng the obvious.
    This is universal material and it can come across in other languages (given some cultural kinship) like German, Scandinavian, Russian. That's why he's good.
  11. Jul 27, 2012 #10
    I agree that Shakespeare had to fight tooth and nail to make it to the top in the sense of having to make enough money to buy the Globe Theater, but I'm not sure if Shakespeare made the money because of his writing ability. I don't have any strong opinions about this because I know very little about Shakespeare's life. On wikipedia, it says that very little is known about Shakespeare's early life. He might have been a school teacher when he was young. Shakespeare was an actor too. Shakespeare could have earned the money to buy the Globe Theater from acting or teaching, rather than from his writing.
  12. Jul 27, 2012 #11
    Absolutely. I think writers (and everyone else) should be rated partly based on what everyone else thinks of them. For instance, I have never watched Michael Jordan play basketball before and I have never looked at his basketball statistics, but I think that it's safe to assume that Michael Jordan was a better basketball player in his prime than the average person since everyone else seems to think Jordan was such a great basketball player. Do you disagree?

    Obviously I don't think that writers should be rated completely based on what everyone else thinks of them, or then I would have never made this thread.

    If a person said that Christopher Marlowe was the greatest writer ever, it might not sound so educated and smart to most people since most people have never heard of him (as famous in educated literary circles as Marlowe is).
  13. Jul 27, 2012 #12


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    Shakespeare was for a long time regarded as coarse and vulgar. Not the least because he does not shy away from being coarse and vulgar.
    As well as being everything else.

    To me, Shakespeare succeeds on all fronts:
    Making damn good thrillers, loads of puns, sexual innuendoes and plain silliness. And, for the recurring reader/viewer, endless philosophical depths.
    Art that lacks popular appeal is simply not good art at all, popular appeal is a necessary criterion for artistic quality, but not a sufficient one (and yes, that means that "quality" of art may deteriorate over time, if it loses its popular appeal. Artistic quality is not a static feauture, but still an objective feature).
  14. Jul 27, 2012 #13


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    He didn't own the Globe, he was a small shareholder.
  15. Jul 27, 2012 #14
    Who are they? The greatest writers of today? I asked you for samples.
  16. Jul 27, 2012 #15


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    "Writer" is a pretty vague category. Like athlete. If we're going to compare works of literature shouldn't we specify a particular type? Like say POETRY.
    The OP mentioned 4 people that are often considered *great poets*.

    You can't compare poet to novelist any more than you can compare polevaulters to quarterbacks. Or speed iceskaters. Its a different kind of greatness.

    Bluemoon should propose 20th or 21st Century POETS that are the equals or betters of Virgil Dante Shakespeare etc.

    Maybe there are some!

    Let's have some kind of measure. What about this? Being loved and enjoyed by speakers of a living language after 300 years. Snatches of verse still known by heart even after 300 years.

    Can Bluemoon or anyone else think of a recent or contemporary poet who you predict will still be known and enjoyed 300 years from now?
  17. Jul 27, 2012 #16


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    It's not a completely pointless exercise, to try to think of some lines of verse from today that might live 3 centuries. What about these?

    Terza Rima

    In this great form, as Dante proved in Hell
    there is no dreadful thing that can't be said
    in passing. Here for instance one could tell

    How our jeep skidded sideways towards the dead
    enemy soldier with the staring eyes,
    bumping a little as it struck his head,

    and then flew on, as if to Paradise.

    A WW2 GI, who was in France, later wrote that.
    And still later, reflecting that a poet's work in any given language
    can live only as long as the language itself, the same person wrote:

    To the Etruscan Poets

    Dream fluently, still brothers, who, when young,
    took with your mother's milk, the mother tongue--

    In which pure matrix, joining world and mind,
    you strove to leave a line of verse behind

    Like a fresh track, across a field of snow--
    not reckoning that all could melt, and go.


    Of course the Etruscan poets have all been dead for over 2000 years and nobody knows what their language was like. It has all been lost. Does anybody besides me think someone 300 years from now might know and (if there are still keyboards with the Latin alphabet) type the above short verse from memory? Or speak it to a friend?
    Last edited: Jul 27, 2012
  18. Jul 27, 2012 #17


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    Kind of the de facto measure of greatness, innit? :tongue2:
  19. Jul 27, 2012 #18

    The main reason that I didn't answer you earlier is that you asked for sample paragraphs of my three favorite writers' best writing. That would require me to go to at least one library, and it would require me to photocopy stated paragraphs or to write them down in a notebook. I won't do all that.

    The other reason that I didn't answer you earlier is that I don't think anyone but you would find this the slightest bit interesting. Just to clarify, I think that the greatest writers from the 19th century to today are superior to the writers from antiquity to 1600s or so. If I had to pick the three greatest writers of all time, I would pick Stephen King, Lee Child, and Jack London. The answer to your question: IMHO, the three greatest writers of today are Stephen King, Lee Child, and Lawrence Block.

    I think that most or all of the most famous writers of the 20th century and the 19th century were superior to Virgil, Shakespeare, Milton, and Dante.
  20. Jul 28, 2012 #19
    Stephen King et al are writers of entertainment, and there's nothing wrong with that, who will be forgotten in 50 years, probably less, (who reads Alistair MacLean these days?). Shakespear, Dickens etc are writers who entertain, and address timeless human problems, husband with pushy wife (Macbeth), "mixed" love affairs (Romeo and Juliet), sexual jealousy (Othello).
    Frankly if you think a trio of contempory thriller writers can compare with some of the greatest wordsmiths of all time you need to start visiting different shelves in your local bookshop, or get a kindle and download some of the classics for free.
  21. Jul 28, 2012 #20
    This pretty much explains your "thesis".

    Stephen King is not a great writer. He's a popular novelist, which is no small accomplishment, but he didn't become that by being a great writer. He's merely a pretty good writer with an uncanny eye for current popular taste. He's firmly stuck to one period in American culture that he really knows how to exploit but he won't outlive it. Once the cultural background changes his appeal will be gone.

    In addition to what jobrag said about Shakespeare addressing timeless human problems, there's the more important fact he said what he said so well and eloquently. So many of the speeches can be removed from the plays and taken as classic poems, as Marcus alludes to, that say what they say in an especially remarkable way.
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