Shakespeare Good and Great

Well did John Senior advise parents and teachers to prepare today’s youngsters for great study, with experiences of the good, such as gardening, graceful dancing, and gazing at the stars dancing above, and also making sure to delight in a thousand good books, before getting to the hundred or so great books by the master spirits of humanity.  After all, we live in the Age of the Teenager.  There were none before the 1950s.  While the adjective “teen-age” appears earlier, the noun is not recorded until Webster III (1961).   The thing did not exist; earlier young people didn’t have their distinct music, big allowances, and even bigger indulgences in wayward manners, morals, and purposes.   Something prompted a generation that had endured the Depression and won a long war, to orphan their own children, turning them over to Rock-, porn-, and pill-merchants; earlier parents felt they ought to shelter and challenge their children; later parents, withdrew to “preparing them,” or not; and then sighing, “they have to work it out on their own.”  I sometimes hear parents say, “We have two Teenagers.”  I never hear them say it happily.  And their children are not happy either.  Both need good experiences and good books. [1]

Among the good authors in John Senior’s list of the thousand good books Shakespeare stands out, appearing in all the several “ages of youth.” Senior orders these books into all, except the first, the nursery.  Can the very young not benefit from Shakespeare?  “The whole future of civilization depends on what is read to children before they can read to themselves,” says John Jay Chapman.  Yes, how soothing to hear Good Night Moon at bed time and later how consoling to recall it; yes, and how good after supper to have Babar, the story of an orphan who grew up to be a good father, read to you, for later you might become such a father too; and yes how expansive in provincial Manhattan, while being read Holling C. Holling’s Big Book of Indians and his Big Book of Cowboys, to look at the pictures and imagine following the buffalo, fashioning a sea-going canoe, and tethering your horse on the flat and treeless prairie.  However, I am not sure Shakespeare can, like these civilizing books, be read to young children.

Much of what is wondrous, hilarious, and noble in a Shakespeare play is intrinsic to, and therefore locked up in, its rich vocabulary, 29,066 different words according to one count.  If you dilute that richness, what is left?  And yet you cannot stop to explain every third word.  There is a second feature of Shakespeare so inherent as to shut out the young child, namely how intrinsicly dramatic he is; to attend to the back and forth of the dialogue is very demanding on any one parent reading all parts aloud, and maybe even two.  If Lincoln did read a play to his boys, as we see in one picture and fits with his reading whole plays to visitors to the White House, I would like to know how he did it.[2]

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What about reading stories of the plays instead?  Even though Shakespeare’s plots, borrowed as they are, aren’t really the secret of his appeal, as Sophocles are, if such rendering of his dramas into stories appealed to the child, it would be worth doing.  I know the Lambs’ retellings are celebrated, and the Nesbit’s are pretty good, but I have found Marchette Chute’s Stories from Shakespeare superior.  She knows how to speak to children.  Also, lodging the plots in the memory would prepare the child to follow the plays in performance.

Be thankful if your school arranges for one Shakespeare play each year, that it is studied as it is prepared, that the little actors are taught to enunciate so grandparents in the back can hear, and reminded to “act your part even when you are not speaking, because someone is always watching you.”  Home-schooling groups can do more than one play.  Before that, let the youngsters memorize speeches from Shakespeare, such as the old McGuffy Readers featured.  The contexts can be added later; the speeches are so bright with beauty, they will lodge it in the memory, and later experience of the joys and the heart-aches flesh is heir to, will kindle their radiant comfort; and still later, their wisdom.  For a child whose nature might not incline that way, say a future Business major, or a child in straightened circumstance, to get to really like Shakespeare will magnify the very soul.  Only with some exaggeration did John Jay Chapman claim, “If one could find two boys of twelve who were exactly alike, and if one of them should begin to read Shakespeare with interest, he would become more intelligent than the other lad in fifteen minutes.”

It is hard to say in what order, suited to differing ages, to enjoy the different plays.  John Senior puts A Comedy of Errors with its numerous mistakings of two sets of twins, first, in “School Days” (age seven to twelve).   Recent custom seems to favor the comedy A Mid Summer Night’s Dream and the tragedy Julius Caesar.  Is it because the bawdy is subdued in both?  I have never seen why Dr. Bowdler needed to produce an edition safe for the family; if you know what that metaphor points to, then you are already in the know, and if not, then you’ll sail on blithely.  Adding Romeo and Juliet to these and coupling it with Rebel Without a Cause could raise the question of the difference between young adults, despite their or’ hasty marriage, and the Teenagers in Rebel.  For the story of a young person, wayward or hiding from duty, growing up into responsibility, have them follow Henry V through three History plays, struggling with his father, and with that hilarious misleader of youth, Falstaff, whose death Shakespeare deliberately contrasts to Socrates’.

Though John Senior included the great tragedies (except Lear) in his list, I must question whether that accords with the distinction between the good and the great.  As the hero in Owen Wister’s Virginian says to his beloved returning the Othello she’s given him,  “such things should not be put down in fine language for the public.“  That opinion marks the Virginian as good not great, and far from meaning Othello should be banned, it means some books, such as Othello, are best reserved for college. Fathers and Sons comes before Brothers Karamazov, the Apology before the Republic, and the Gospels before Thomas.  (Not that I think the difference between the Gospels and Thomas can be described as good and great.  Perhaps milk and meat?  But the Parable of the Prodigal Son is milk for a child and meat for a philosopher.  In truth, a supper that will never end.)  To his brother, Vincent Van Gogh exclaimed, “my God, how beautiful Shakespeare is, who else is as mysterious as he is; his language and method are like a brush trembling with excitement and ecstasy.” In saying so, he is recognizing the good so abundant in Shakespeare, but “mystery” carries him on immediately to add, “But one must learn to read, just as one must learn to see and learn to live.”  And then he was recognizing the great, and how much one must learn to measure up to it.

The painful mysteries that Shakespeare’s tragedies impose upon the beholder are for older students.  You can appreciate the troubles they initiate the young into, if you, in answer to your small daughters’ question, “Daddy, what do you do?” soon discover the inadequacy of “I teach Shakespeare,” and then start retelling the story of Hamlet and the story of Lear.  Retold to a child, the story of Hamlet immediately raises the question: should you always obey your father’s commands?  Moreover, you, knowing the play, but now looking ahead as a father, will see nothing but troubling questions ahead, about justice, about revenge, and the Ghost.  What dreadful thing comes after death?  In your college class such questions were as interesting as troubling.  Now they’re just troubling, and you may not want to continue telling the story of Hamlet.   And if you start with King Lear, you will see in the faces of your children a perplexity beyond their innocent souls, about fathers and daughters for example, which you wish you were not the cause of.  Should love be rewarded?  Why are some hearts hard?  Can one ever know if one is loved, unless one is powerless?  And if one has no power, how can one protect those one loves?  Soon your children will be wondering if one should ever ask, “Do you love me?”   And then you will be mightily tempted to substitute for the end you know is coming, the happy one Naham Tate supplied, with Cordelia still living.

To be sure, painful mysteries are found in all the Great Books, in the fall of Troy, the defeat of Athens, in Oedipus’ discovery of the murderer of his father, in deep, searching, and lovable Pascal who found it hard to love anyone including himself, and even in unpoetic Kant who says we cannot know what we most want to, which provoked Kleist to despair.  The enmity of the City to the Philosopher, poignant in the trial of Socrates, and the difficulty of the Philosopher living among the unexamining many, is everywhere in Plato and, under the smile of reason, there in Aristotle.  Moreover, the great souls do not always agree with each other.  Studying them is a lofty but risky adventure.  “It can make you melancholic to study the great books, that is why we did it together in classes,” said Louise Cowan, the founding fellow of the Dallas Institute.

The Great Books require in the teacher a different disposition and stance than the good.  When you are teaching the good books, you present yourself as a path, a vessel, an ambassador, even a bouquet of the good, on a level with them, but when you are teaching something great, you better not claim to be level with it, unless you have achieved something like it.  Have you written one scene as good as the least of Shakespeare’s, a page as radiant, admiring, or terrifying as one by Manzoni, a single maxim as penetrating as Halifax’s, or a reflection worth space in a cahier of Péguy?—why then go ahead.  If not, then towards the great you better be looking up, trying to reach them, to scale the peak where they dwell, sunny above the clouds but bitter cold and the air thin, and be hoping your lungs are big enough to stay long.  Such solitaries exult in their best shape, but feel lonely, and a long way from what they most desire. While teachers of good books think of what they already know, how good it is, and will be for others, teachers of the great think of what they do not know and would fain learn.  Thrilling as the quest is, to be on it is to think more of the goal, which subordinates all.  On the adventure going up, they might glance back to see if any students are keeping up; good students find such neglect instructive, for they recognize it arises from superior aspiration.  Among students such teachers are always addressing the best, so they become more than best. In truth, when you study a great book, you are not really a teacher, but a student, perhaps first among students, but still a student, of something brought into being by someone your superior in heart and in mind, such as Shakespeare.

By contrast, when you teach a good book, you are addressing the whole class as well; the unexamined life is quite worth living; and for their sake you are right to stand before them, face them (not the good book you represent), and talk, or even give a lecture, if mindful that, as Socrates says, teaching is not putting sight in the eye.  In addition, in the great there is usually good beside great; for the sake of the young, it is possible to teach a great book as if it were only good; and it is not unreasonable to think that somehow everything great must be good. Talk of the good books should be a stroll, beside rushing waters, a tour of a fragrant garden, a stop at a café, an invitation to a dinner party, and a conversation among friends by firelight.

Fortunately there have been many who recognized the superiority of Shakespeare, and served it with good works, which we can thank them for.  Editions with good notes, not cheap Dover ones or old note-less doorstoppers, exist and are necessary, because Shakespeare’s rich language is difficult.  Reading along rapidly you can pick up the general meaning of unfamiliar terms, but it is handy to have elucidations on the same page. Penguin, Pelican, Bantam, Folger, and Signet editions of single plays provide such, with Signet often best; but open to a passage and compare. “New” issues of these editions tend to provide less help and sometimes hindrance about race, class, and gender. The best notes I’ve ever discovered are by David Bevington. The preferred one-volume is the Riverside Shakespeare edited by Blakemore Evens, but the older Pelican Shakespeare by Alfred Harbage is fine, and a couple of pounds lighter.  Two good guides on elementary, but significant matters are Harbage’s William Shakespeare: A Reader’s Guide (Noonday, 1963) and William G. Leary’s Shakespeare Plain (McGraw-Hill, 1977).  For vivacious appreciations of each of the works, Mark Van Doren’s Shakespeare (Doubleday, 1939), which arose from his teaching, is still best.  He says just enough to provoke, but not overwhelm one.   (“Still” should be no surprise when for four decades now if you want the craziest things on campus, visit the English Department.)

It is almost always better to read another Shakespeare play than to read criticism of the one you just read, but for older youngsters, who have enjoyed several plays and come to their own first view of them, it may be time to meet the views of their elders. The best anthology of criticism is still Frank Kermode’s Four Centuries of Shakespearian Criticism (Avon Books, 1965).  For more Continental authors, get Oswald le Winter’s Shakespeare in Europe (Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1963), especially for Goethe’s and Hofmannsthal’s essays, the two best ever in my opinion.  I say these are for older youngsters, but they are for their parents and teachers as well, who I imagine sharing the good of Shakespeare, and sharing it together.

With students I favor taking parts, reading aloud, in a small group.  You will make mistakes, you will learn much, and you will come to enjoy it.    Either one can read a whole play at a meeting, or read half a play, discuss it, and finish the next week.   What’s good for a class is good for a family. There is a short span in the life of a child when he becomes knowledgeable enough to read Shakespeare aloud and might still want to with his parents.  Seize the day.  Make it a privilege of the young, like a Bar Mitzvah, to join your circle of friends reading aloud together.  John Senior once observed that no family gathers around a TV as they once did round a piano or a fire.   The thought of a nation whose citizens read Shakespeare together is exulting, and thus sad the fact that having attended college today makes so little difference in the intellectual habits of the graduates.

And if it happens that you have no circle of friends, but want to hear Shakespeare, perhaps on long drives to friends, there are plenty of well-spoken CDs of Shakespeare. (Elizabethans spoke of hearing a play not seeing a play). The old Marlowe Society, the BBC, and the Arkangel sets come to mind.  There are also many well-spoken individual recordings, often featuring the most esteemed actors.  In truth, Paul Scofield reading Lear is better than framed in Peter Brook’s famous stage version, whose nihilism cut the nameless Servant who intervenes in the gouging of Gloucester’s eyes.  (When asked who in all of Shakespeare would he most like to be, C. S. Lewis said the Servant in Lear.)  However, the wit-combats in Love’s Labor’s Lost are too rapid and unrelenting to combine with driving, and remember that explaining to the officer that you were just urging your band of brother soldiers “once more unto the breach,” laudable as it surely is, will only get you off with a warning, if the officer liked Shakespeare in class, or in summers plays a yeoman archer in reenactments of Agincourt. Sitting quietly, you can always read and reread Shakespeare wherever you are.  As Faulkner said, “I always take a copy of Shakespeare in my suitcase.”

What about families with youngsters who have gotten the notion that Shakespeare is awful and spurn all invitation to read Shakespeare, alone or together?  For them, seeing some good Shakespeare might be the path to conversion and redemption.

The choice requires care.  As Jacques Barzun says, If classical music were tampered with as much as Shakespeare is, —by those who say he is only understood in the theater! — there would be howls from Tokyo to Vienna.  If the marquee has the director’s name larger than Shakespeare, avoid it.  “Ask not what I can do for Shakespeare, but what he can do for me,” is egoism in the director’s chair.  (There were no directors in Shakespeare’s time.)  However, one can be awfully grateful to an actor for cracking a joke, expressing a nuance, summoning a deep feeling one had missed, but if an actor botches some line vividly, makes the subtle memorably dumb, and especially these days, illustrates a bawdy metaphor with a vulgar gesture, it will be hard to erase that image from your mind when you read the line later.

Fortunately, faithful playing of Shakespeare does exist here and there, more often in companies without money to lavish on distractions like the sets and lighting.  At the Globe Shakespeare’s company played in daylight, the sets were all of imagination compact, though they spent gold for the costumes.  It was all aid and prompt to the mind, to the mind’s eye, and to the soul. Companies I’ve seen do Shakespeare faithfully, are the New England Shakespeare (who do it with Q-scripts assigned the morning of performance); Adirondack Shakespeare in summers, Hubbard Hall (which makes Cambridge, New York the most graceful and cultivated village in American), and the American Shakespeare Company (Staunton, Virginia), which also performs Jonson and Marlowe, corrivals of Shakespeare, and in addition the likes of Heywood, Massinger, and Ford.

If no faithful company is near you, there are some very good performances of Shakespeare on DVD.  From experience I can recommend the old BBC Age of Kings (including a young Sean Connery as Hotspur) and the BBC Henry VI through Richard III series (with beautiful Julia Foster as tiger-hearted Queen Margaret).  Performances that feature this or that famous actor have as their precedent the reputation that Burbage of Shakespeare’s company established (such that an inn-keeper near Bosworth Field used to point to the very place where Burbage cried “my kingdom for a horse”), but check to see if they also have the restraint with which Burbage served the whole play, whose author, his fellow player, was watching nearby.  Again, if the marquee spells the actor’s name bigger than Shakespeare’s, be cautious.

Finally one should mention, among things worth seeing, John Barton’s instructive series Playing Shakespeare, in which his former students come back together to discuss how to play Shakespeare.  Good youngsters, who just now don’t like their parents, do sometimes like hard things, and how hard an actor must work and how skilled some are will be evident to any who see this series. The discussion between Patrick “Cpt. Picard” Stewart and David “Poirot” Suchet about how each played Shylock, with cameo illustration, is a treasure.  Ian “Gandalf” McKellan’s rendition of “In sooth I know not why I am so sad“ five ways in twenty seconds is magical.  And Tony French’s sober delivery of the Archbishop’s speech on King Henry’s right to France does it right, as no one else does.  Also worthy are the two courses on Shakespeare for the Teaching Company by Peter Saccio.  To have remained sober, interesting, and elevated (with but one slip) in the midst of the last few decades of academic literary “study” is heroic.

It is natural to wonder what Shakespeare was like and to want to meet the man. There is the story of how at the Mermaid Tavern, in their wit-combats, Shakespeare like a yare English-man-of-war sailed around Ben Jonson, he a Spanish great Gallion heavy with learning.  Judging also from the achievement of the plays, how many different people he knows, and how he knows all, except maybe Hamlet, better than they know themselves, one can confidently conjecture Shakespeare would learn more about any of us “meeting him” than we’d learn about him.

It is also natural to wonder what he thought of his own life, but the peak shrouded in clouds he chose to dwell in forever cannot be approached by anyone not his equal, and even his superior might not ascend it.  Just as Horatio could never tell the life of Hamlet, for he never heard the soliloquies, so we cannot tell the life of Shakespeare; if any of the Sonnets are such soliloquies, without addressee, context, frame, they cannot tell his story aright.  He could have written his life.  From what he did write we infer it would have been the greatest life ever told by the man who lived it, but he chose not to, which accords with the fundamental character of his works (as I shall sketch below). No diary, no journal, and no letters have come down to us; he had no conversation with an Eckermann; and no sedulous Boswell sought his company.  The spare legal and financial records he left, available in Samuel Schoenbaum’s Compact Documentary Life (Oxford University Press, 1987), can only be bulked out with fantasy, like the bombast that makes a lean man into a Falstaff.

For a biography that sticks to the known record and life experience of Shakespeare, with a vast and solid knowledge of the times, aptly adduced without ostentation, read Marchette Chute’s Shakespeare of London (1949).  You’ll learn features of Elizabethan life, the fundamentals of the Elizabethan stage, how his company performed, forty plays a season, fifteen new, the Office of the Revels, and a hundred other things, as Shakespeare knew them, for Miss Chute limits herself to records from his time, little from the layers and layers of opinion from later biographers and editors, and she conjectures prudently only on their basis.  It would take you thousands of hours, with hundreds and hundreds of books, available only in a few big libraries to learn on your own what she provides.  Being based on this book, her Introduction to Shakespeare is the best for youngsters; and her novel, A Wonderful Winter, about a runaway boy joining Shakespeare’s company of actors, which risks presenting Shakespeare himself spending the day with our young hero, and succeeds!

Please do not distract the young, or anyone, with searches for the real author of Shakespeare; it is not just that all the claims are strained beyond their light evidence, compared to the substantial weight for Shakespeare, and refuted by scholarly examination, (read Schoenbaum’s Shakespeare’s Lives or Shakespeare, In Fact by Irvin Leigh Matus), but that, as my old teacher at Harvard, Alfred Harbage, observed, these people never have anything interesting to say about the plays.   It’s all code to them.  Each thinks he is his favorite detective, but all are just Poloniuses, not Poirots, and the tracks in front of the cave each shares with a few fellow and many rival conspirators all point in.   Likewise those of my fellow Catholics who are sure his private worship was Catholic.  Even if that were true and proved, say by finding one of Cardinal Borromeo’s testaments of belief signed in his hand, that would only make these claimants like a young Thomist breaking into a room filled with the likes of A. G. Sertillanges, Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, Josef Pieper, and Charles de Konnick, exclaiming, “I’ve proved it  . . .  yes I have  . . .  Thomas was a Catholic!” to which his smiling elders would respond, “Please tell us what you have learned from one of the works of the seraphic messenger,” and he would stammer, “Well, now I already know what’s in them.”  Instead, heed the advice of Shakespeare’s friends, who brought out the First Folio: “reade him  . . .  and againe and againe.” And if you do not learn something more heartfelt, splendid, and true than you knew before, then belike you must once again read him.

In Shakespeare’s As You Like it, the cynical “seven ages of man” spoken by a melancholic ends with old age “sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything,” but it is immediately refuted by a good youth carrying in his aged mentor.  In truth, there’s good in every age of man, howsoever much of woe, and the whole is embraced by wonder.  In Shakespeare there are at least seven such wonders.  There is his learning, so vast every retiree is tempted to write a book proving Shakespeare’s “lost years” were spent doing what he did for a lifetime; there is his exuberance of speech, radiant and wise even in the mouths of villains; then, third, in being the first ever to write both comedy and tragedy, and adding history too, Shakespeare is the English-speaking Sophocles, Thucydides, and Aristophanes, without however presenting the gods; by juxtaposing multiple similar but not same things, he is the most philosophic poet, making Hamlet about a man who reasons about revelation and Lear one who is without; and yet Shakespeare beyond all others accords a singularity to his characters, so that a few lines identifies them; what they are is measured by the virtues, passions, and vices, which they share with all others, but who they are makes each unique, beloved by him and us; yet, a seventh wonder is that Shakespeare never acknowledged how wonderful he is, unless it be hidden in ninety-eight words in a corner.  In truth, Shakespeare’s works let in the wonders of the world so transparently that it requires effort to see what a wonder they too are; and they in turn are such wonders that it takes an effort to see what a wonder he too was; yet he must have known both. The works he gave us are so vivacious, so splendid, and so deep, that it seems he thought it more important to attend to the wonders of the universe than to himself at all.  No poet or thinker has served the good itself more selflessly.  “God, who stretched apart / Doomsday and Death—whose dateless thought must chart / All time at once and span the distant goals, sees what his place is.”[3]

[1] My “Myth of the Teenager” is readily available on the web; a longer account, “The Young, the Good, and the West,” distinguishing the good and the great, is at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute website.

[2]  For further reflections on Lincoln’s love of Shakespeare and why he considered Claudius’ soliloquy better than Hamlet’s, see my “Shakespeare for Life” on websites of the Claremont Institute and George Wythe University.

[3]     “Shakespeare,” Poems of G. M. Hopkins, 3rd ed., ed. Robert Bridges and W. H. Gardner (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1948), Poem 93, 144.


  • Michael Platt

    After study at Harvard, Oxford, and Yale, and teaching long stints at Dartmouth and the University of Dallas, with sojourns in Germany at Heidelberg and Greifswald and in Austria at the International Theological Institute (founded by John Paul II), Dr. Michael Platt now teaches politics, philosophy, and literature at George Wythe University (Cedar City, Utah; email: [email protected]); some of his writings, on Shakespeare and Thomas, on teaching and learning, and on the phenomenon of the Teenager, are on its website. He has been rewarded with generous students and supported by the Alexander von Humboldt Stiftung and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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