The merit of the English Canon: Authorship and Elitism

I love William Shakespeare. Since my introduction to his work in grade nine, I’ve been hooked. His plays, despite their age, have a timeless quality. This timeless stems from the human nature of his narratives. Despite the magics and sorceries in plays such as MacBeth and King Lear, Shakespeare rely heavily on their appeal to regular symptoms of the human condition. Joy, lust and sorrow are masterfully interwoven into his thirty-seven plays. Coupled with endless charm and wit, it comes as no surprise that we remember Shakespeare so fondly. This being said, I do not think William Shakespeare deserves to be considered an unquestionable center of Western literary canon. As an ICS major, I really can’t see any piece of media as unquestionably good. I may not be an English major, but I think that may be an asset in this particular course (this statement appears to be a recurring theme of both my posts and classroom contributions). To me, the idea of a canon defeats the purpose of studying literature. Literature, like any other medium of expression, is highly subjective and fluid.

 

Reading Kastan’s article, the fluidity of literature became even more apparent to me. A canon may offer readers a peer-vetted selection, but it cannot be seen as an inflexible, monolithic entity. Instead, a canon should be edited and revised frequently. If the Western canon as championed by Harold Bloom were not to be challenged, our understanding of great literature would stagnate. I understand that there are some unique works that contribute more heavily to literature as a whole, but to disregard all of the derivative works or pieces inspired by said great works would be foolish. Additionally, works that are now considered “great” have not always been gifted that label. In Shakespeare’s time, his plays were nothing more than ephemera. Reading play scripts had not caught on yet, and religious texts eclipsed them in popularity. Less than a third of Shakespeare’s plays were published during his lifetime and few achieved great commercial success. Kastan compares Shakespeare’s published plays to movie scripts: they served as pieces of memorabilia rather than formal pieces of literature. Despite being readily available, plays weren’t experienced in the same analytical way that modern scholars are accustomed to. A play was more likely to be kept as a souvenir or read begrudgingly in lieu of seeing the play.

Again, I have no qualms with the works of William Shakespeare. I chose the Kastan article for my presentation because I love his plays. That being said, it is important to to contextualize his role in literary and print history. A great playwright and master of the mechanizations and intricacies of the theater during his time, Shakespeare could care less about his role in commercial print. The only ones who profited from his printed plays were the printers, swindlers and rogues who would later identify Shakespeare’s talent and commercialize his name. In truth, Shakespeare lived and died living in literary obscurity despite his renown in the theater. As our “indisputable great”, this article pokes holes in our understanding of our traditionally untouchable Shakespeare. My take away from this is to keep an open mind, you’ll never know who’ll be considered great down the road.

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