To like, or not to like?

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?