What Richard Hanania Gets Wrong About Shakespeare

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“The common curse of mankind, folly and ignorance, be thine in great revenue!”

William Shakespeare (Troilus and Cressida)

Sometimes someone makes such a bizarrely awful argument that you hope it’s a joke so you don’t have to go through the trouble of refuting it—until he presses the point so adamantly that you become convinced he’s serious and, because of the argument’s extreme inanity, must be engaged. Richard Hanania, the controversial opinion writer, made such an argument last weekend. 

The sordid story begins, as so many do, on X/Twitter, where someone shared former FTX CEO Sam Bankman-Fried’s speculation that, based on a back-of-the-envelope statistical analysis, William Shakespeare isn’t as good as everyone thinks. “What are the odds that the greatest writer would have been born in 1564?” he asked. As the Earl of Salisbury said in Henry V, “’tis a fearful odds.”

The musings of America’s favorite alleged fraud earned plenty of righteous ridicule, but Hanania offered his humble support:

Echoes of Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey notwithstanding, Hanania soon expanded his argument. He insisted that he “could copy Shakespeare’s style and produce something just as appealing” (emphasis added). Lest you think he’s immodest, he added that “anyone who can write decent prose on any topic can do it,” and that if you had “a halfway competent writer study his style,” that person could—with “a little time”—eventually “write a ‘Shakespeare like’ sonnet” that readers would rate as highly as the genuine article.

Thomas Gray once mused of a country churchyard, “Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest.” Hanania raises the stakes by suggesting our cities could be teeming with potential Bards of Avon.

His confidence isn’t based on his experience as a writer or his knowledge of Shakespeare. Rather, Hanania espouses a brand of probabilistic postmodernism that rejects the excellence of the past because the numbers are against it. After all, people today are smarter and better educated, have abundant leisure time and conveniences, and enjoy more art and culture from which to draw inspiration. Plus, we have a population advantage. 

But then what accounts for Shakespeare’s stellar reputation? In Hanania’s mind, it ultimately boils down to “external cues about prestige and quality,” and defenders of his status are conformist “sheep” who apply “a kind of affirmative action for the past.”

There are many problems with this argument, but the most serious is that it reflects a deep ignorance of why people consider Shakespeare great. 

Take the focus on Shakespeare’s style. It’s certainly true that readers (and theater-goers) enjoy his poems and plays for their musical lines, figurative language, and clever wordplay, to name just a few elements. But nowhere does Hanania take into account Shakespeare’s substance

Let’s say Hanania did somehow manage a five-act tragedy with evocative metaphors and beautiful blank verse, or that his volunteer sonneteer did write 14 lines in iambic pentameter and with the proper rhyme scheme. Would the sonnet express any ideas worth our reflection? Would the play tell a story worth following, with characters worth caring about?

What are the reasons people have traditionally enjoyed Shakespeare, apart from his style? The narrative arcs of his plays. His understanding of human nature, behavior, and psychology. His ability to inhabit and convey disparate perspectives, having “as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen” (as Keats put it). His expression of a broad range of tones and emotions, from bawdy humor to jealous rage. His use of multiple plotlines and characters to explore complex concepts like honor, revenge, justice, power, and—Hanania will like this one—reputation. These are just a few examples.

Perhaps there are more people today capable of applying their greater knowledge of the world and the human mind to works that convey deep meaning and depict credibly complex and compelling characters. That seems possible—but I’m skeptical that this bigger talent pool includes replacement-level writers.

Still, for the sake of argument, let’s assume anyone could apply a version of the infinite monkey theorem and write a work that the educated reader would rate as highly as something by Shakespeare. What would it prove, exactly? We conformist sheep don’t think Shakespeare is arguably the greatest of all writers because he wrote Hamlet, but because he wrote Hamlet and Macbeth and King Lear. And The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream and All’s Well That Ends Well. And Henry IV (both parts!) and Richard III. And if a random poet could write a sonnet as good as one by Shakespeare—well, color me impressed! Now, have that poet do it 153 more times. We’re looking for the Beatles, not the Archies.

While it’s true that evaluations of art are subjective, they nonetheless rely on criteria. Hanania offers none apart from “style,” and he doesn’t even define that. Great literature entails much more substance than he seems to recognize, and the act of reading involves more than being delighted by how a character speaks (though that’s part of it!). Surely someone who complains so much about the “sheep” and “conformists” all around him should doubt the average writer’s ability to consistently match the depth of Shakespeare’s thought and perception. 

Not everyone needs to be a Bardolator of the Harold Bloom school. It’s reasonable to say that Shakespeare is overrated or that he’s not the greatest writer our language has seen—but, curiously, Hanania doesn’t name any author from the past 100 years he thinks is more deserving of the title. Odds are that’s because he relies on probability rather than knowledge of literature.

Hanania’s argument reminds me of a story my father liked to tell, about a high school English class in which a student made a dumb criticism of Shakespeare. The teacher, a Catholic priest with a strong Boston accent, glared at the student and sneered,  “Mistah, when you read Shakespeah, Shakespeah’s not on trial; you ah.” Hanania would have been better off pleading the Fifth.

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