Why I... believe William Shakespeare is grossly overrated

February 5, 1999

Edward Burns is senior lecturer in English at the University of Liverpool

Studying and performing Shakespeare has become an industry. It's like shopping at Marks and Spencers because you can't be bothered to go anywhere else.

We have lost track of whether the plays are good or why they are good, and theatre productions have become tired. Productions are limited to such a narrow range - Hamlet, The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night. That's not to say they are not beautiful plays but actors have become bored, they're not given the chance to explore other less well-known plays of the period.

People talk about "all human life" being in Shakespeare, they talk about his universality. That's nonsense. Let's take Hamlet; the parts of Gertrude and Ophelia are badly written, they're limited, they're not worthy of the great actresses compelled to take the roles because these are Shakespearean plays.

And Shakespeare's domination creates a gap in actresses' careers: they have to go from being dutiful daughter to the mother figure. Other English Renaissance writers, Webster and Middleton, for example, offer better roles with greater range for mature women.

Shakespeare is institutionalised, a kind of decadence has set in, he's blocking everything else out. The problem stems from the fact that at school he's just about the only early, pre-20th-century writer children meet. They scarcely look at Chaucer any more, and even in universities with traditional Renaissance literature courses there is pressure for Shakespeare to become the central area of study. English departments think they will attract more students that way.

When I was doing a PhD at Oxford my supervisor advised me not to do Restoration comedy because if I worked on Shakespeare I would have a much better chance of an academic career. Studying Shakespeare is seen as safe, and that becomes self-perpetuating.

Some academics have given up going to see Shakespeare because of the limited range performed. Some behave like cultists and will go to see anything by Shakespeare. Others are treating what I say as blasphemy. There's potential for a fatwa here.

Interview by Elaine Williams

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