It was at the start of commercial English literature and of English military, economic, and cultural dominance, and someone had to be chosen.

Which could have been many others. Pope and Milton come to mind as critically-acclaimed figures before or near the period where Shakespeare was gradually being canonized.

It was the one point in time (and this is true) when florid speech, as over-ornamented as the embroidery and ruffled sleeves of Elizabethan men's clothing, was in fashion.

Shakespeare was far from the epitome of Elizabethan Euphuism (and he mocked it). There were many far more over-ornamented works: go read Urne Buriall and tell me that Shakespeare was florid and over-ornamented*. If I may quote Miller from the Paris interviews: "Even Shakespeare was smashed around in his time by university people."

* EDIT: this should not be taken as criticism of Urne Buriall or Browne; I think it's awesome and an incredible read and anyone who possesses the ability to handle reading it (which is not very many) should read it. I'm just saying it's ridiculous to claim Shakespeare is baroque.

It was the only time since Chaucer (and this may also be true) when writers had contact with and immediate feedback from their audiences, and attempted to please both the opera-box and the pit at the same time.

Leaving aside the fact that this seems to apply to most playwrights, writers routinely circulated their manuscripts among friends, acquaintances, and patrons, and could try out things and get weekly (or faster) feedback from newspapers and chaps.

Shakespeare's world is so foreign to us, with its strange speech and clothing and worldview, that to a modern audience, Shakespeare is simply a fantasist with a colorful and meticulously-constructed fantasy world, richer and more consistent than Tolkien's, that we love to visit.

By this logic, the tale of Gilgamesh should be the most popular story of all time, as it is possibly the most remote in time from us. Or if you prefer distance, we should be venerating Wu Ch'eng-en or something like that.

I can easily compute how likely it is that one of the Elizabethan authors was the greatest author of all time given that hypothesis 2 is false: It is the number of Elizabethan authors divided by number of authors of all time.

But you already know that Shakespeare is considered the greatest. What does this calculation mean at all? Someone has to win the lottery. This is Texas Sharpshooter - 'look how unlikely that my shot would land in this exact square foot of the barn!' And absolute production in all time periods is low - I think the usual estimate of the entire surviving Greco-Roman corpus is in the low millions of words.

I'm going to multiply by another factor of 10 to account for the strange fact that almost everyone agrees that Shakespeare is the greatest writer of all time, when this is not how appraisals of artistic merit ever work. It is almost never the case that a blinded evaluation of the works of different experts in any kind of art results in a unanimous opinion on which one is the greatest.

I find this a strange presupposition. If everyone agreed that Shakespeare was not the greatest writer of all time, would you then conclude that he must have been? What is the right amount of disagreement?

I suppose Beethoven or Aristotle might be such cases, but I do not find the degree of unanimity regarding their merits versus Bach and Newton that I find on the merits of Shakespeare versus everyone else.

I find this an interesting claim, because if I consult the indexes computed in Murray's Human Accomplishment from encyclopedias & textbooks etc, I do not find Shakespeare to be some extraordinary outlier who in his field is ranked so much higher than #2 than any other #1 figure is ranked higher than #2. He ranks 19 points higher in his index, but for example, in the Arabic literature index, al-Mutanabbi ranks 21 points higher than #2 Abu Nuwas. (It must be a conspiracy! Perhaps al-Mutanabbi sucked up to the Caliph, or his Arabic was just so exotic.) In Western Art, #1 Michelangelo is 23 points higher than Picasso. In Western Music specifically, Beethoven & Mozart are tied and Bach is a solid 13 points below (the same difference between Aristotle & Plato, incidentally; Chinese Philosophy sees Confucius 31 points higher than Laozi, and in Indian Philosophy it's an extraordinary 44 points from Sankara to Nagarjuna, much as I prefer the latter). In Western Physics, we find Newton 11 points higher than Galileo, not terribly far from Shakespeare's 19 points lead in his field, and in Chemistry it's 33 down from Lavoisier to Berzelius.

While I'm at it, what are the other major figures in the Western Lit category Murray compiled? In descending order, the rest of the top 5 turn out to be: Goethe, Dante, Virgil, & Homer. Quickly looking through the Google snippets for goethe site:theparisreview.org/interviews, it seems like all the mentions of Goethe are positive - quelle horror! The conspiracy extends to #2 as well, and even embraces German literature! We all know that great writers will criticize every other writer, so the absence of criticism of Goethe may be proof of this canonization process happening for Goethe too. And what about Dante? I've seen some extravagant praise for Dante from great writers like Borges... How deep does it run...

(Or, maybe, you've ludicrously overstated the extent of dissent among top writers in general? Just a thought. "Hemingway, Faulkner, Joyce, Fitzgerald": do any of these sound like plausible candidates for, say, 4th greatest writer of all time? Maybe there's dissent over these 4 examples because as good as they are, they aren't really in the same class as Shakespeare, Goethe, Homer, or Dante and reasonable men can differ about how great they are?)

(Yes, I am actually arguing that unanimity of expert opinion in this case makes that expert opinion less likely, because non-merit-based mechanisms produce unanimity much more often than objective evaluations of artistic merit.)

And you are naturally privileging your own expert opinion that Shakespeare's plays like Comedy of Errors are bad.

At this point, is there even any need to consider the proposition that Shakespeare was the greatest author of all time? For myself, I think not.

No half-baked speculation about causes of literary popularity was required to realize you don't enjoy Shakespeare.

Showing 3 of 6 replies (Click to show all)

All this doesn't address my key observation, which is that the prior against one of the first one-hundred professional English writers turning out to be the best is simply incredible. Your list of other top-rated artists in other fields only reinforces this point. What are the odds that the best artist or practitioner in every field happened, by chance, to be one of the first 0.1% in that field? Either there is a strong bias to overrate the early practitioners, or the human race has been devolving rapidly for hundreds of years.

If the claims people made were along the lines of "X was the most influential in his field", we could expect this. But I often hear it stated as absolute ability.

1Vaniver7yI should point out quickly that I found the first half of Faust (the halves were sold as separate books, and I just got the first) to be boring. There's a scholar who wants power and knowledge, and makes a deal with the Devil to achieve them, and what happens? He seduces a young girl down the street (and, since the Devil is involved, things go poorly). How... pedestrian.
3Vaniver7yOne person disagreeing, and now that PhilGoetz has jumped on that grenade, we have the right amount of disagreement, and I can be confident Shakespeare was the best. ;)

To like, or not to like?

by PhilGoetz 3 min read14th Nov 201386 comments

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Do you like Shakespeare?

I've been reading the Paris Review interviews with famous authors of the 20th century. Famous authors don't always like other famous authors. Hemingway, Faulkner, Joyce, Fitzgerald — for all of them, you could find some famous author who found them unreadable. (Especially Joyce and Faulkner.)

Except Shakespeare. Everyone loved Shakespeare. In fact, those who mentioned Shakespeare sometimes said he was the best author who has ever lived.

How likely is this?

I have a divergent opinion. I realized this during a performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream. I've seen the play three or four times. Every year, people perform it at Renaissance festivals, in Central Park, and in at least one high school within 5 miles of my house. I was sitting in the audience as they got into the part where Bottom acts like an ass and this is supposed to be funny. I was just waiting for them to get it over with, and then remembered that there was nothing after it in the play that I looked forward to anyway. I suddenly realized, "This... is a bad play." Up until that moment, I had somehow believed that it was one of my favorite plays without actually liking almost anything in it.

A Midsummer Night's Dream is supposed to be a magical romantic comedy. It contains nothing of the magic one finds in a Peter Beagle or Charles de Lint fantasy, less-stirring romances than the average fan-fiction, and less humor than one would find in a randomly-chosen paragraph of Terry Pratchett. It has never made me laugh or cry once. Yet even having read it, and having watched it at least twice, I somehow voluntarily paid to sit and suffer through it again when I still had unread stories by Chekov, Borges, Katherine Anne Porter, and a hundred other worthies whose work seldom failed to move me at least as much as Shakespeare's best.

I have two competing hypotheses. Hypothesis #1 is that Shakespeare was the greatest author who ever lived, or at least in the top 10, whatever that means. You would be hard-pressed to find more than a handful of literary critics who would dispute this. Hypothesis #2 is that something about the time that Shakespeare wrote in made it very likely that we would elevate some writer from that time period to "Greatest Writer Ever". For instance:

  • It was at the start of commercial English literature and of English military, economic, and cultural dominance, and someone had to be chosen.
  • It was the one point in time (and this is true) when florid speech, as over-ornamented as the embroidery and ruffled sleeves of Elizabethan men's clothing, was in fashion.
  • It was the only time since Chaucer (and this may also be true) when writers had contact with and immediate feedback from their audiences, and attempted to please both the opera-box and the pit at the same time.
  • Shakespeare's world is so foreign to us, with its strange speech and clothing and worldview, that to a modern audience, Shakespeare is simply a fantasist with a colorful and meticulously-constructed fantasy world, richer and more consistent than Tolkien's, that we love to visit.

I can easily compute how likely it is that one of the Elizabethan authors was the greatest author of all time given that hypothesis 2 is false: It is the number of Elizabethan authors divided by number of authors of all time.

So how many Elizabethan authors were there? This is probably the sort of thing that shouldn't be attempted using Google, but I don't have a university library at hand. Using Google, it appears that we have about 600 plays from that time period. Most of the writing from that time seems to have been by amateur poets, mostly members of the nobility. The number of serious authors during the Elizabethan period — and I'm really guessing here; the number of distinct professional author names I've come across is about a dozen — might be around 100.

How many people write novels in English today? Hard to say, but this web page makes a reasonable case that about 100,000 novels in English are published each year. Publishers accept about one out of every thousand books submitted; it is not unusual for a book to be submitted to 10 different publishers. I will therefore estimate that 10 million novelists write 10 million novels in English every year today. Our first approximation for the prior odds for some Elizabethan author of being the greatest English writer of all time are therefore about one in 100,000. I'm going to multiply this by a factor of 10 to account for the fact that authors in Elizabethan times had no libraries, and few good writings to take as models even if they'd been able to acquire copies. I'm going to multiply by another factor of 10 to account for the strange fact that almost everyone agrees that Shakespeare is the greatest writer of all time, when this is not how appraisals of artistic merit ever work. It is almost never the case that a blinded evaluation of the works of different experts in any kind of art results in a unanimous opinion on which one is the greatest. I suppose Beethoven or Aristotle might be such cases, but I do not find the degree of unanimity regarding their merits versus Bach and Newton that I find on the merits of Shakespeare versus everyone else. This gives prior odds of one in 10 million.

(Yes, I am actually arguing that unanimity of expert opinion in this case makes that expert opinion less likely, because non-merit-based mechanisms produce unanimity much more often than objective evaluations of artistic merit.)

At this point, is there even any need to consider the proposition that Shakespeare was the greatest author of all time? For myself, I think not. There's nothing left to explain away. Sure, there are people claiming that Hamlet or King Lear are masterpieces. But I already know that some weird mechanism is at work that convinces people every day to actually pay money to watch A Comedy of Errors. Whatever that mechanism is, it can also explain our attachment to Hamlet.

Given that I know there's a powerful reality-distortion field around Shakespeare, isn't it more rational to assume that whatever fondness I have for any Shakespeare play is a result of that field, than to try to evaluate the play and trust in my superhuman ability to resist that field's force?

And what do you do if you still feel that you like Shakespeare? If you logically conclude that you've been deceived into over-valuing his work, do you will yourself by force of intellect to stop liking it so much?

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