When I was a junior in high school, I won something called a book award, which recognized rising seniors who loved books and demonstrated a solid understanding of English and literature by presenting them with an actual book from a specific group or organization.
One May afternoon I sat in my high school’s library with a small audience of my peers to see what work of literature I’d go home with. I nearly jumped up when my name was called and hastily walked to the front of the group, but my heart sunk when the American Association of University Women handed me a copy of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. I hate William Shakespeare.
As an avid reader and writer, I’ve been encouraged to read and love Shakespeare throughout my life. I grew up familiar with the story of Romeo and Juliet and was surrounded by popular Shakespeare adaptations like West Side Story and 10 Things I Hate About You, but the first time I had to actually read Shakespeare was in my sixth-grade language arts class. Our teacher read a number of acts from Hamlet out loud in class, and then we were assigned to finish the rest of the play at home.
My teacher took the time to go over everything line by line when we read it in class, but when I took Hamlet home and it was just me, myself, and Shakespeare, I was beyond lost. I sifted through the yellow, plastic hardcover book that creaked with each turn of the page, and all I learned was that Early Modern English hurt my brain and I couldn’t seem to wrap my head around it. The first time I had to read Shakespeare then turned into the first time I discovered SparkNotes, after frantically searching the web for Hamlet summaries and explanations. I didn’t rely on SparkNotes because I wanted to cheat my way through it; I simply wanted to understand what was going on in words and terms that were tangible to me.
I walked into class the next day and didn’t tell any of my classmates what I did — because I thought I was alone, dumb, and probably way in over my head. Welcome to middle school, I thought to myself. You’re in for a rough few years. I also didn’t want to get in trouble for using SparkNotes, a website I knew was forbidden by all my teachers. A handful of students raised their hands to excitedly give their two cents about the characters, themes, and dialogue in Hamlet. The rest of the class remained as quiet as I did, but I didn’t think I could necessarily take their silence for solidarity. After all, I had been told time and again that Shakespeare is “the greatest writer of all time.”
For a while, Shakespeare was difficult for me to make sense of and understand. As time went on I became more capable of comprehending what was going on in his plays, but I didn’t grow to enjoy them any more. In high school I got around to reading “The Taming of the Shrew,” which I found problematic and, in turn, unenjoyable. From the way Katherine’s character is portrayed as harsh and bitchy because she doesn’t want to get married — meanwhile, her younger sister Bianca who happens to be more docile is therefore more appealing to male suitors — to the plot revolving around how Katherine needs to be “tamed” until she turns into an obedient and subservient wife in a marriage she’s forced into, all the way down to the play’s title itself, The Taming of the Shrew did nothing but irritate my budding feminist identity.
Sure, it’s reflective of the time period it was written in — racial, gender, and sexual equality hadn’t yet reached 16th century England — but that doesn’t make me any more inclined to relish in what I interpret to be Shakespeare’s inherent sexism. If I don’t like reading modern stories and authors that perpetuate sexist ideals about gender, love, and marriage, why should I make an exception for Shakespeare? Instead of devoting all of this literary space and obsessing over the words written by an author who celebrates his 450th birthday this month, I could be focusing on other important writers from both past and present who offer different and equally important perspectives.
The dominant narrative is, more often than not, determined by society’s elite. I’d rather not put an old, rich, white man from regal Britain and his antiquated ideologies about society on a pedestal. In part, he’s as influential and significant as he is because of the other old white men in power who decided he would be, and who made those decisions as to which literature gets canonized.
Throughout my entire academic career and even in professional circles, I couldn’t help but feel insecure about my lack of enthusiasm for Shakespeare, because for the vast majority of the time, I felt alone in my reluctance toward the author. From grade school through higher education, we’re all taught to admire the Bard, and there’s great shame attached to saying you don’t like this literary icon.
Every time someone brings up Macbeth or The Tempest, I feel like I have a knot in my stomach because all I ever wanted in the world is to be taken seriously as a writer and lover of literature, and I never thought that could happen if I admitted to my disdain for Shakespeare.
I’ve carried this secret insecurity around with me for as long as I’ve been reading Shakespeare because I fear the judgment and ridicule of others, but why should I have to force myself to read something that’s supposed to be enjoyable? Despite the long road to get here, I’ve come to terms with my unpopular opinion. I no longer fear the judgment of others, and I unapologetically proclaim that, to me, Shakespeare is highly overrated.
It’s been seven years since I received my book award as a junior in high school, and I still have the copy of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare that the American Association of University Women gave me. It’s a beautiful book covered in red velvet cloth-like material, the pages lined in gold coloring. Its physical nature is absolutely gorgeous and I’ll probably have it forever, but unfortunately all it’ll ever do is look pretty and collect dust on my bookshelf.