To like, or not to like?

post by PhilGoetz · 2013-11-14T02:26:59.072Z · score: 4 (28 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 86 comments

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:

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?

86 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by gwern · 2013-11-14T03:36:12.718Z · score: 24 (32 votes) · LW · GW

It was at the start of commercial English literature and of English military, economic, and cultural dominance, and someone had to be chosen.

Which could have been many others. Pope and Milton come to mind as critically-acclaimed figures before or near the period where Shakespeare was gradually being canonized.

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.

Shakespeare was far from the epitome of Elizabethan Euphuism (and he mocked it). There were many far more over-ornamented works: go read Urne Buriall and tell me that Shakespeare was florid and over-ornamented*. If I may quote Miller from the Paris interviews: "Even Shakespeare was smashed around in his time by university people."

* EDIT: this should not be taken as criticism of Urne Buriall or Browne; I think it's awesome and an incredible read and anyone who possesses the ability to handle reading it (which is not very many) should read it. I'm just saying it's ridiculous to claim Shakespeare is baroque.

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.

Leaving aside the fact that this seems to apply to most playwrights, writers routinely circulated their manuscripts among friends, acquaintances, and patrons, and could try out things and get weekly (or faster) feedback from newspapers and chaps.

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.

By this logic, the tale of Gilgamesh should be the most popular story of all time, as it is possibly the most remote in time from us. Or if you prefer distance, we should be venerating Wu Ch'eng-en or something like that.

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.

But you already know that Shakespeare is considered the greatest. What does this calculation mean at all? Someone has to win the lottery. This is Texas Sharpshooter - 'look how unlikely that my shot would land in this exact square foot of the barn!' And absolute production in all time periods is low - I think the usual estimate of the entire surviving Greco-Roman corpus is in the low millions of words.

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 find this a strange presupposition. If everyone agreed that Shakespeare was not the greatest writer of all time, would you then conclude that he must have been? What is the right amount of disagreement?

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.

I find this an interesting claim, because if I consult the indexes computed in Murray's Human Accomplishment from encyclopedias & textbooks etc, I do not find Shakespeare to be some extraordinary outlier who in his field is ranked so much higher than #2 than any other #1 figure is ranked higher than #2. He ranks 19 points higher in his index, but for example, in the Arabic literature index, al-Mutanabbi ranks 21 points higher than #2 Abu Nuwas. (It must be a conspiracy! Perhaps al-Mutanabbi sucked up to the Caliph, or his Arabic was just so exotic.) In Western Art, #1 Michelangelo is 23 points higher than Picasso. In Western Music specifically, Beethoven & Mozart are tied and Bach is a solid 13 points below (the same difference between Aristotle & Plato, incidentally; Chinese Philosophy sees Confucius 31 points higher than Laozi, and in Indian Philosophy it's an extraordinary 44 points from Sankara to Nagarjuna, much as I prefer the latter). In Western Physics, we find Newton 11 points higher than Galileo, not terribly far from Shakespeare's 19 points lead in his field, and in Chemistry it's 33 down from Lavoisier to Berzelius.

While I'm at it, what are the other major figures in the Western Lit category Murray compiled? In descending order, the rest of the top 5 turn out to be: Goethe, Dante, Virgil, & Homer. Quickly looking through the Google snippets for goethe site:theparisreview.org/interviews, it seems like all the mentions of Goethe are positive - quelle horror! The conspiracy extends to #2 as well, and even embraces German literature! We all know that great writers will criticize every other writer, so the absence of criticism of Goethe may be proof of this canonization process happening for Goethe too. And what about Dante? I've seen some extravagant praise for Dante from great writers like Borges... How deep does it run...

(Or, maybe, you've ludicrously overstated the extent of dissent among top writers in general? Just a thought. "Hemingway, Faulkner, Joyce, Fitzgerald": do any of these sound like plausible candidates for, say, 4th greatest writer of all time? Maybe there's dissent over these 4 examples because as good as they are, they aren't really in the same class as Shakespeare, Goethe, Homer, or Dante and reasonable men can differ about how great they are?)

(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.)

And you are naturally privileging your own expert opinion that Shakespeare's plays like Comedy of Errors are bad.

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.

No half-baked speculation about causes of literary popularity was required to realize you don't enjoy Shakespeare.

comment by fubarobfusco · 2013-11-14T05:31:35.960Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

By this logic, the tale of Gilgamesh should be the most popular story of all time, as it is possibly the most remote in time from us.

The Epic of Gilgamesh was discovered in 1853 and translated in 1870. The latest known Akkadian written records are from around the 1st century CE. So it may well have been completely unknown for seventeen centuries or more, which is a problem Shakespeare doesn't have.

comment by gwern · 2013-11-14T15:58:15.236Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

1870: so it's had no less than 143 years (a century and a half) to become popular. Shakespeare was canonized in less time, and plenty of writers from 1870 or later have become immortals (eg Dickens, Tolstoy, in the novel area).

Even if you don't like that example, there are plenty of other stories from well before 0 CE.

comment by Vaniver · 2013-11-14T15:16:14.235Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

If everyone agreed that Shakespeare was not the greatest writer of all time, would you then conclude that he must have been? What is the right amount of disagreement?

One person disagreeing, and now that PhilGoetz has jumped on that grenade, we have the right amount of disagreement, and I can be confident Shakespeare was the best. ;)

comment by PhilGoetz · 2013-11-14T16:28:41.856Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Glad to be of service!

comment by PhilGoetz · 2013-11-14T16:27:21.734Z · score: 2 (10 votes) · LW · GW

All this doesn't address my key observation, which is that the prior against one of the first one-hundred professional English writers turning out to be the best is simply incredible. Your list of other top-rated artists in other fields only reinforces this point. What are the odds that the best artist or practitioner in every field happened, by chance, to be one of the first 0.1% in that field? Either there is a strong bias to overrate the early practitioners, or the human race has been devolving rapidly for hundreds of years.

If the claims people made were along the lines of "X was the most influential in his field", we could expect this. But I often hear it stated as absolute ability.

comment by gwern · 2013-11-14T16:51:38.924Z · score: 8 (14 votes) · LW · GW

All this doesn't address my key observation, which is that the prior against one of the first one-hundred professional English writers turning out to be the best is simply incredible.

I did address that, but obviously in a way you didn't understand. Let me try again: that is not an observation, that's a result of an unmotivated and unjustified model you postulated which leads to a result which you already had as a bottom-line. Your reference classes are post hoc cherrypicked to reach your desired conclusion, your data is minimal (see my point about your bizarre interpretation of the Paris interview criticisms and the comparison to other fields), and if your strategy was applied to any other field, give equally absurd results that noone before the 18th century should have been the greatest in anything because the human population has grown so much since then.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2013-11-14T18:19:51.499Z · score: -1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

if your strategy was applied to any other field, give equally absurd results that noone before the 18th century should have been the greatest in anything because the human population has grown so much since then.

If you apply my strategy to any other field, the numbers give the result that noone before the 18th century should have been the greatest in anything because the human population has grown so much since then, yes. When you do the numbers and they give you a definitive answer, you don't dismiss it as "absurd" because you don't like it (or because you have a bug up your ass about the person who ran the numbers).

My separation of classes chronologically is, like all good models, inspired by observation. In this case, the observation that a statistically-impossible number of the people considered "best in field" came very early in those fields, even in fields like literature where coming early is a disadvantage rather than an advantage as regards the quality or contemporary opinion of your work.

Why are you always especially rude to me?

comment by gwern · 2013-11-14T18:34:39.617Z · score: 7 (9 votes) · LW · GW

When you do the numbers and they give you an answer, you don't dismiss it as "absurd".

One man's modus ponens is another man's modus tollens. You have amply explained why you reached the conclusion you did based on idiosyncratic personal preferences and constructed an unconvincing model to try to justify it; there are no 'numbers' here, there is only absurd reference class tennis. ('Stratford-on-Avon had 0.0001% of the medieval English population; the odds against the greatest English writer coming from Stratford-on-Avon is astronomically unlikely!') I am perfectly happy saying that the result refute the pseudo-premises - not that you gave a precise model in the first place: I will ask you again, what is the right amount of criticism for Shakespeare that would satisfy you that he really was the greatest writer ever?

My separation of classes chronologically is, like all good models, inspired by observation. In this case, the observation that a statistically-impossible number of the people considered "best in field" came very early in those fields, even in fields like literature where coming early is a disadvantage rather than an advantage as regards the quality or contemporary opinion of your work.

The damning point here is that you are willing to bite the bullet and say it applies to sciences as well, where we would, contrariwise, naturally expect the earlier a scientist to live, the easier it is to make incredible discoveries and pick up low-hanging fruit. Only an early scientists has a hope of discovering, say, gravity. Or an early mathematician something like calculus. You have to live as early as Parmenides if you want to discover something basic and extremely important like 'the moon is illuminated by the sun'.

comment by lmm · 2013-11-15T01:20:25.730Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

In the cases where we have objective measures (like memorization contests) we see records being broken all the time (which is as we'd expect). A lot of this can be attributed to improved general intelligence, but we'd expect that to be correlated with creative skill too. Are there any measurable world records from the Elizabethan era that still stand?

The damning point here is that you are willing to bite the bullet and say it applies to sciences as well, where we would, contrariwise, naturally expect the earlier a scientist to live, the easier it is to make incredible discoveries and pick up low-hanging fruit. Only an early scientists has a hope of discovering, say, gravity. Or an early mathematician something like calculus. You have to live as early as Parmenides if you want to discover something basic and extremely important like 'the moon is illuminated by the sun'.

You're measuring something here, but I don't think it's likeability. Newton may have been more historically important than Einstein, but no-one would prefer the former's theory of gravity to the latter's. If Shakespeare got pretty close to the perfect tragedy, but there was a slight refinement of the form from the 19th century that's better (if less significant), surely people would prefer to watch that, and count themselves fans of that author.

comment by gwern · 2013-11-17T03:46:55.368Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Are there any measurable world records from the Elizabethan era that still stand?

I'm not sure what sort of world record you would have in mind, and given the parlous state of science at the time, what world records would you trust? If, for example, I exhibited a Chinaman from the Ming who lived for 231 years, which is surely a world record, you would rightly reject this by saying 'it is much more likely that this world record is inaccurate than he really did live to 231, given how notoriously bad records were at the time, the cultural value set on being the oldest man in the world, etc'.

If Shakespeare got pretty close to the perfect tragedy, but there was a slight refinement of the form from the 19th century that's better (if less significant), surely people would prefer to watch that, and count themselves fans of that author.

If Shakespeare helped define what the perfect tragedy was, and all later tragedies felt the 'anxiety of influence', this isn't so clearcut. See my other comment.

comment by Pfft · 2013-11-15T05:32:07.625Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

the earlier a scientist [lives], the easier it is to make incredible discoveries and pick up low-hanging fruit.

You are ignoring the distinction PhilGoetz made in the grandparent comment:

If the claims people made were along the lines of "X was the most influential in his field", we could expect this. But I often hear it stated as absolute ability.

comment by gwern · 2013-11-17T03:20:11.830Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Is that a real distinction? When Shakespeare is the 'most influential', then in some respects, he is setting what it means to be 'able'. He is setting our norms and expectations, laying down the language we think and write in. John Keats: "He has left nothing to say about nothing or any thing." Ralph Waldo Emerson: "His mind is the horizon beyond which at present we do not see."

When a writer is so influencing (should I say, 'distorting'?), is it really meaningful to draw a distinction between 'influential' and 'able'? Like Phil's implicit claim that every writer has an equal chance of being Shakespeare, this is not something I am willing to instantly grant without inspection.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2013-11-15T00:46:51.299Z · score: -3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

The fact is that across most fields, a statistically-impossible number of those regarded as the greatest practitioners were among the very first practitioners. There are numbers; I have provided some in the case of Shakespeare, and you yourself have provided more. If you bothered to compute the odds you would find them astronomical. You acquire dozens of bits of information about who are regarded as the greatest X from dividing all people from all arts into two classes, early and not early. That's amazing discriminatory power, and it doesn't happen by accident. It's a testable hypothesis, and you tested it: You listed the top-regarded practitioners in fields I didn't mention, and they followed the same pattern.

comment by gwern · 2013-11-15T02:41:11.022Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

The fact is that across most fields, a statistically-impossible number of those regarded as the greatest practitioners were among the very first practitioners.

Statistically impossible... based on what?

There are numbers; I have provided some in the case of Shakespeare, and you yourself have provided more. If you bothered to compute the odds you would find them astronomical.

Based on what am I computing these odds? What sort of absurd model assigns equal possibility to being Newton in Newton's lifetime and right now?

That's amazing discriminatory power, and it doesn't happen by accident.

I agree that it doesn't happen by accident. And I think there's many alternate explanations besides the one you seem to hew to.

Have you considered that greatness may simply come and go with periods of particular ferment? Look at the plots over time in Human Accomplishment: clumpiness is common, but other than that, there's no particular rhyme or reason. Arab literature clumps at a different time from Chinese painting which clumps at different times than Western Philosophy, and so on. All of this massively violates a naive model 'everyone has an equal chance to be Newton, therefore isn't it really suspicious that Newton was so early on'; am I supposed to believe that 1000 years later, Arab poetry is still biased by random canonizations? And the same bias hit Japanese literature for a different clump of writers? And hit a later still clump of English writers?

(This is reminding me of anthropic reasoning. 'We get these absurd consequences from SSA/SIA! Clearly the Great Filter is near and we are doomed to die in the next 50 years!' 'Or maybe your theories of anthropics are filled with holes and problems, and you've nicely demonstrated their absurdities.')

You listed the top-regarded practitioners in fields I didn't mention, and they followed the same pattern.

Yes... So what's simpler, that in all fields there are conspiracies to canonize random early participants, or that early participants really are not identical to later participants?

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2013-11-17T02:05:12.133Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not sure if this is the same as periods of particular ferment, but I've wondered if what makes great eras is that there happen to be enough highly capable people in proximity so that they can play off each other.

comment by gwern · 2013-11-17T03:08:10.990Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Proximity is surely important (why else do we have universities rather than, say, professors distributed across the country being mailed checks every month?) and may be part of the reason that cities are so important and have superlinear returns to population and explain why Murray does indeed find that major figures all tend heavily to live in or work near cities, but cities have high populations through time, not just space. Paris for centuries has had large populations, but there are still clusters of major French figures. So I don't see how cities explain the temporal clustering of major figures.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2013-11-17T03:30:34.057Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not just talking about ordinary city proximity, I'm talking about getting a handful of very sparkly people (and possibly a larger number of moderately sparkly people) with the right combination of talents and personalities to inspire each other. And possibly the ability to generate enough interesting stuff to get the attention of gatekeepers.

comment by JoshuaZ · 2013-11-19T04:10:59.846Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

It may be worth noting that there's a fair bit of evidence that over the long-term, only some literary wors get a lot of attention, and this does not seem to be closely correlated with what at a specific time is widely read or considered great literature. Much of what we consider great works of literature from the 19th century were not as widely regarded as they are today, while other works have fallen by the wayside. Similar examples show up elsewhere and elsewhen. For example, The Tale of Genji was written in the middle of the Heian era when a lot of different literary experimentation was going on, and it took time for it to be recognized.

It may make sense therefore to use a test of time as a way of determining literary merit. This isn't ideal: it is possible that once a work is sufficiently well-done, the actual level of acclaim more closely resembles a random walk. I'm not sure how to test that hypothesis.

comment by gwern · 2013-11-19T04:45:09.220Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

For example, The Tale of Genji was written in the middle of the Heian era when a lot of different literary experimentation was going on, and it took time for it to be recognized.

Really? My impression had been that Genji was recognized almost immediately as one of the great works of Heian literature, based on the profusion of manuscripts prepared in Shikibu's time, the countless imitators, the testimony of the Sarashina Nikki, the commentaries prepared not too long afterwards, and in particular, the very high regard of Fujiwara no Teika, one of the most important literary figures for centuries (I may be biased, since I wrote the Wikipedia entry on Teika), who worked on the manuscript.

comment by JoshuaZ · 2013-11-19T04:51:02.963Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think Teika's work is great evidence since that's about 150 years after Genji is written. The rest of your arguments though I think are strong: there's way too much contemporaneous recognition of Genji to use it as an example of what I wanted it to do.

I was hoping I'd have some example from non-Western literature, I may now need to update to this sort of thing being a Western phenomenon.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2013-11-21T00:42:03.039Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

How much movement of literary judgement would you consider unsurprising? Do you have a source quantifying the movement of judgement of 19th century work?

comment by JoshuaZ · 2013-11-21T02:02:26.919Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Regarding, the first question:I'm not sure. Regarding the second, I don't unfortunately have a good source for this. I My impression on this is from talking to multiple lit professors and teachers who have mentioned this phenomenon.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-11-17T03:52:08.488Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

See here (follow-up here)

comment by Vaniver · 2013-11-14T16:24:17.304Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Quickly looking through the Google snippets for goethe site:theparisreview.org/interviews, it seems like all the mentions of Goethe are positive - quelle horror!

I should point out quickly that I found the first half of Faust (the halves were sold as separate books, and I just got the first) to be boring. There's a scholar who wants power and knowledge, and makes a deal with the Devil to achieve them, and what happens? He seduces a young girl down the street (and, since the Devil is involved, things go poorly). How... pedestrian.

comment by JoshuaZ · 2013-11-19T04:05:39.456Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

How much of that is due more to what you are used to, in part due to the influence of Faust? There's the old joke about the 9th grade student who complains that Shakespeare and the Bible are both full of cliches.

comment by Vaniver · 2013-11-19T06:07:12.830Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

How much of that is due more to what you are used to, in part due to the influence of Faust?

I don't get the impression that this is a significant contributor. I think it's mostly Heinlein's "an intellectual is someone who's found something more interesting than sex" not fitting Faust, despite the setup being an interesting one for that premise.

A tale of a deal with the devil going poorly isn't the part that I thought was pedestrian, but I agree that if that had been my motivator that this would be likely.

comment by lmm · 2013-11-14T13:19:31.475Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I think Goethe, Dante, Virgil & Homer are exempt from criticism as foreigners. Who comes up as your top five writers in English?

I think it's culturally acceptable to argue that Picasso was better than Michaelangelo (or to prefer Leonardo or even Rembrandt), that Bach was better than Mozart (or even that Tchaikovsky was better than both), that Plato was more important than Aristotle, that Einstein or even Darwin mattered more than Newton. In a way that you simply can't suggest another english-speaking writer was better than Shakespeare in polite company. (Heck, I'll bite your bullet; I don't think one could openly suggest Goethe was better than Shakespeare, and you'd only get away with Virgil or Homer because people haven't read them and so couldn't argue).

I've never read any of your four (except insofar as Goethe is responsible for Marlowe, or SHAFT); I can think of two friends who've read Dante, and one insufferably pretentious acquaintance who read Homer. But every schoolchild studies at least two Shakespeare plays. I think the gap really is much wider than in other fields of endeavour.

comment by gwern · 2013-11-14T16:08:32.366Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I think Goethe, Dante, Virgil & Homer are exempt from criticism as foreigners. Who comes up as your top five writers in English?

Besides Shakespeare, the top list includes Byron & Scott. Judging from later discussions, I think a longer list would have included Poe, Whitman, Shelley, Keats, & Wordsworth, but Murray doesn't include a fuller sorted listed. (He gives all the rankings for figures in Western Literature in pg562 which you could extract the full English literature ranking from if you really wanted to, but I didn't.)

Heck, I'll bite your bullet; I don't think one could openly suggest Goethe was better than Shakespeare

It would be difficult to make that suggestion, yes, in part because Goethe himself so praised Shakespeare, and it would be a temerarious person indeed who dared disagree with the writer he was trying to claim as being better.

(That page, incidentally, is interesting reading who anyone who thinks that Bardolatry is unfounded and unrelated to his merits. Why would Milton, that most independent-minded man, praise Shakespeare so, anonymously, just 16 years after his death? What literary conspiracy could have been formed by that point?)

comment by gjm · 2013-11-14T17:19:55.858Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

you simply can't suggest another english-speaking writer was better than Shakespeare in polite company.

I think we must move in different circles. I don't think anyone I know would be particularly offended if I claimed to prefer, say, Milton to Shakespeare or to think M. objectively better than S.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2013-11-14T13:30:21.693Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

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.

Leaving aside the fact that this seems to apply to most playwrights, writers routinely circulated their manuscripts among friends, acquaintances, and patrons, and could try out things and get weekly (or faster) feedback from newspapers and chaps.

I don't think that this applies to many playwrights. Shakespeare was not just playwright, but also producer. I don't think playwrights today are able to rewrite shows in the middle of a run; and they don't like it when the producer rewrites. Moreover, the producer goes to a lot more shows than the writer. Also, Shakespeare had acting experience, though that's probably not terribly rare.

Yes, many writers receive feedback, but a real audience is a much larger and honest sample. Also, the reaction while reading/watching is probably more honest than the reaction afterwards.

A modern institution that may be similar is improv.


Thanks for the Murray numbers.

comment by gwern · 2013-11-14T16:21:37.225Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think that this applies to many playwrights. Shakespeare was not just playwright, but also producer. I don't think playwrights today are able to rewrite shows in the middle of a run; and they don't like it when the producer rewrites. Moreover, the producer goes to a lot more shows than the writer. Also, Shakespeare had acting experience, though that's probably not terribly rare.

My understanding is that in comparable places like Broadway, they constantly rewrite and tweak plays and musicals during the previews. Murray offers an interesting comparison:

At first glance, it may not seem reasonable to expect the United States to have 65 playwrights for every one that Elizabethan England had. But this intuitive reaction is conditioned by our knowledge that the Elizabethan playwrights included Marlowe and Shakespeare, so we tend to think in terms of 65 playwrights of their caliber. But if I were to ask the question another way—is it reasonable to expect today’s United States to have 65 times as many people who make their living from writing dramas as Elizabethan England?—the answer is of course yes. The half century from 1570–1620 had only 20 English playwrights mentioned in any of the sources, 13 of whom were significant figures.[21] Compare this with the single year of 2000 in the United States, when the Writers Guild that supplies writers for unionized television and screen projects numbered 12,735 members, about half of whom were employed during 2000.22 This figure does not count all the non-unionized people who make a living writing for television, the screen, and the stage.

TV shows certainly are constantly changing based on feedback and viewership numbers.

And is it really so rare? Looking down a list like http://www.theaterpro.com/majormodernplaywrights.htm I spot a few I recognize as working directors or actors: Beckett, Brecht, Coward, Gorky, Hellman, Ibsen (or possibly close enough to count, like Caryl Churchill's workshops)... I stop at I because I could use some breakfast but hopefully my point is made.

comment by Anatoly_Vorobey · 2013-11-14T21:49:23.560Z · score: 11 (11 votes) · LW · GW
  1. Tolstoy hated Shakespeare and thought him wildly overrated. He wrote a long essay about it that'll probably resonate with you; having located it for you, I find that George Bernard Shaw shared his opinion (his letter is at the end of the book).

  2. Nearly everything in your list of reasons why Shakespeare had to be chosen as Greatest Writer ever fails for the simple reason that Shakespeare was not thought of as the greatest Elizabethan playwright during his life and for a long time after his death. Ben Jonson was more regarded and more famous for most of the 17th century. Beaumont and Fletcher were also more widely known and more frequently performed than Shakespeare. To explain why towards the end of the 17th century Shakespeare emerges as the most regarded playwright in English you need to see how he's different from Ben Jonson &c., and none of the reasons you gave addresses that. Ben Jonson's plays also have florid speech &c.

comment by gwern · 2013-11-17T03:28:30.403Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Tolstoy hated Shakespeare and thought him wildly overrated. He wrote a long essay about it that'll probably resonate with you; having located it for you, I find that George Bernard Shaw shared his opinion (his letter is at the end of the book).

You blew it, Anatoly. You should have waited for Goetz to specify how much dissent is the right amount of dissent about Shakespeare (which I've now asked Goetz twice), and then revealed Tolstoy and Shaw.

comment by Protagoras · 2013-11-14T23:44:06.092Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

It seems Tolstoy disliked Shakespeare for being insufficiently Christian. Personally, I dislike Tolstoy for being excessively Christian (or perhaps more accurately being too overt/preachy about it; I understand Dostoyevski was similarly devout, but it didn't seem to corrupt his work the way it corrupted Tolstoy's).

comment by Protagoras · 2013-11-17T00:44:30.677Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Hmmm. Did I offend Christians, or Tolstoy fans? Was I too brief? Or did people just not actually read the Tolstoy essay? On the off chance it was one of the last two, I'll mention that the essay does, in fact, say that a central part of what's wrong with Shakespeare is that he's not Christian enough, though Tolstoy is extremely long-winded and takes forever to get to the point. And a certain narrow-mindedness seems to me to be involved in Tolstoy's criticisms across the board. Tolstoy assumes he understands people perfectly well, so when something that happens in Shakespeare puzzles him, he assumes it's because Shakespeare is misrepresenting people, rather than considering that his own insight into humanity may be less than total. It further seems to me that Tolstoy's confidence in his assumptions about humanity and his confidence in his belief in Christianity are deeply inter-related (and I doubt he would have disputed that point). And, for example, Anna Karenina has always seemed to me to be the work of an author with a supreme and unjustified confidence that he knows exactly how the world works.

comment by RomeoStevens · 2013-11-14T07:03:39.936Z · score: 6 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Hypothesis: Liking and wanting are separate pathways. Shakespeare hit upon a memetic formula that made you go see his plays over and over again without really bothering with the liking part. Shakespeare was the World of Warcraft of his time.

comment by Brillyant · 2013-11-14T17:42:10.997Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

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?

What if you become persuaded through mountains of hard evidence that you don't think your Mom was "good", and that you only convinced yourself of this out of convenience and necessity? Will you force yourself to stop loving her?

I'm super interested in the mechanisms whereby some seemingly subjective effort in any medium gains universal appeal, so upvoted for being something I like to think about. But your last couple sentence just seem kinda weird. (Maybe it was just tongue-in-cheek?) Like what you like.

I think people like what they like based on some combination of familiarity and signalling. Of course, some stuff will have a broad appeal because it happens to be interesting to a wide-range of demographics by the very nature of the material (sex, love, adventure, suspense, etc.). But when it is hard to put your finger on why something is liked when you don't like it, I'd suggest it is because people have gotten "used to it" and it gives them comforting, nostalgic, fuzzy feelings, relaxation, etc... or they are just pretending to like it to get the social benefits of saying they like it. They're faking in many cases, methinks. (Maybe they even fake themselves into geniune liking via familiarity? Ha.)

comment by [deleted] · 2013-11-17T03:48:45.841Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I think people like what they like based on some combination of familiarity and signalling.

That's often the case, but not always. Otherwise, how would you explain when I enjoy an artwork the first time I watch/listen to/read it and I don't tell anyone about it?

comment by Brillyant · 2013-11-18T14:33:39.037Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Of course, some stuff will have a broad appeal because it happens to be interesting to a wide-range of demographics by the very nature of the material (sex, love, adventure, suspense, etc.).

Or, it could be that that piece of art is tied to some other stimulus that is familiar to you. (e.g. the color remind you, perhaps subconsciously, of the color scheme of your childhood home.)

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2013-11-17T02:43:06.842Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

What if you become persuaded through mountains of hard evidence that you don't think your Mom was "good", and that you only convinced yourself of this out of convenience and necessity? Will you force yourself to stop loving her?

This kind of thing can happen when parents are abusive. Their children may go through a long process of realizing that they've been treated badly for no good reason, and then another long process of sorting out their emotions towards the abusive parent(s).

comment by PhilGoetz · 2013-11-15T00:57:35.462Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

It relates to the question of whether there are absolute standards in art. If you believed in Aristotelian physics, and someone showed you that Newtonian physics works better, you probably wouldn't respond with, "I just like what I like."

If you really believe that tastes in art are arbitrary, then it may be appropriate to simply like whatever you find yourself liking. But then you must admit that Twilight (the novel), atonal music, Victorian moralistic poetry, and the fingerpainting of chimpanzees are just as great as whatever it is that you like. I've never met anyone who seems to me to believe that.

comment by Brillyant · 2013-11-15T15:13:20.074Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I get it. And I love the question. Super interesting.

I do believe there are objective standards in art. I believe they are based on the physiological and neuroscientic interactions of the observer with the artistic creation.

People are diverse and relate to artistic expressions in such complex and varied ways. As I said, some stuff will resonate with people because it is composed of the stuff that typically resonates with people. The rest is some combo of familiarity & signalling.

There probably also is some machanism whereby significant exposure to any given type of art will require that works display more complexity... or unique technique... or some other aspect that increases the art's novelty in the eyes of an observer who is hyper familiar with a given medium and has become bored with the popular stuff.

For instance, Top 40 pop music just doesn't do it for most of the music buffs I know. When I ask why they like stuff that just sounds like noise to me, they always say something like "that pop shit is too simple and/or easy to do". They appreciate someone taking the medium further and accomplishing something technically that is on the cutting edge of what is possible. You might say they have gone from being someone who is entertained by music to someone who appreciates it. They become picky and "refined".

I'd imagine something similar happens in literature, movies, painting, etc. Then you get the afformentioned signalling fakers who just copy the people with more refined taste. Then you get some people who signal themselves right into sincere liking via familiarty. Then you've got weird stuff being genuinely liked. Or maybe I'm all wrong.

comment by lmm · 2013-11-14T13:32:12.208Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Comedy ages poorly in every medium and for every author, and Shakespeare's reputation is not really built on his comedies. I think it would be fairer to examine Hamlet (as overrated as I find it), or Romeo and Juliet (or my personal favourite, The Tempest). I think people really do treat the comedies differently, and in many cases go to see them explicitly because they're by Shakespeare rather than on their merits. We already know about the effects that will lead people to praise a bad book by a good author.

That said, my intuition is there's an important truth under your argument. There's a real rich-get-richer effect in terms of literary popularity; critics have a lot of incentives to hold particular opinions, and an author who is seen as good in one age will influence other works, which is then rather circularly taken as evidence as their quality. I think the mechanics of culture have a tendency to amplify small differences between good and great, and the pedestal Shakespeare is placed on is a particularly tall one. But I suspect he was, even objectively in his time, better than those around him - just not by as much as we treat him as.

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.

Sounds like an interesting experience. Did you enjoy going to see it? I have a friend who counts Manos: The Hands of Fate among his favourite movies, not because it's a good movie per se but because he enjoys watching it. If you didn't enjoy it, why did you think it was a favourite? Were you signalling? (Asking for information, not trying to trap you)

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?

I think the key consideration in answering this is: rationalists should win.

comment by Protagoras · 2013-11-15T00:37:23.318Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Hmmm. Comedy is sometimes overstuffed with contemporary references which lose their appeal and meaning with time, but this seems like a bit too sweeping of a generalization here. I actually like Shakespeare's comedies, for the most part, and find plenty to laugh at in the comedies of Aristophanes, which are obviously far more dated yet. Conversely, it certainly isn't the case that all drama ages well. I wonder if it's more that comedy consistently gets less respect; perhaps old comedy is not as well regarded as old drama for the same reason new comedy is generally regarded as less substantial than new drama.

comment by CronoDAS · 2013-11-14T18:27:23.108Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Romeo and Juilet is a comedy, at least until the part where bodies start piling up...

comment by Vaniver · 2013-11-14T17:30:06.248Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

So clearly Shakespeare has first-mover advantage, and first-mover advantage is significant. It also seems likely that there have since been authors with at least as much raw talent as Shakespeare, and authors who have the same or superior technical skill (as they've benefited from reading subsequent authors, and theoretical developments in the understanding of how to write).

But it's not clear to me that "best" has a clear meaning, or that everyone unpacks it in the same way. And it makes sense to all agree that a prominent early figure in some field is "best," in order to deflect unproductive arguments about an unclear term. Consider the Asimov-Clarke treaty, where each agreed to call themself second best and the other one best.

It's also not clear to me that one should ignore first-mover advantage. If I develop a nuanced theory of Hamlet after reading the play, reading Asimov's commentary on it (and Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare is really good), and then reading the play again, then I can talk with most literati about my theory of Hamlet. If I develop a nuanced theory of some niche playwright's play, even if the play is objectively better than Hamlet, there's no guarantee that I can talk about it at dinner parties with literati.

comment by somervta · 2013-11-15T06:25:34.753Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Consider the Asimov-Clarke treaty, where each agreed to call themself second best and the other one best.

There's a bit more to it than that. According to the linked wiki page, Asimov was required to insist that Clarke was the best science fiction writer in the world, while Clarke was required to insist that Asimov was the best science writer in the world.

comment by gjm · 2013-11-14T02:50:09.212Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

A few not particularly connected thoughts.

1 Why are you computing (# Elizabethan writers) / (# writers ever), specifically? I mean, why is the numerator that rather than the number of authors whose name begins with S, or the number of writers called William Shakespeare who wrote at least one play about kings and witches, or any of a zillion other sets of writers?

Because of your hypothesis #2, I suppose. But why that hypothesis rather than the hypothesis that there's something about having a name beginning with S that makes an author specially likely to be favoured, etc.?

2 It seems odd (this is a polite way of saying "downright wrong") to be comparing an estimate of the number of "serious writers" in Elizabethan times (estimated on the basis of what works have survived from then to the present day) with an estimate of the number of people who have submitted at least one novel to at least one publisher today. Compare serious writers with serious writers, or wannabes with wannabes.

3 I think you're wrong about what conclusions to draw from the near-unanimous admiration of Shakespeare. Yes, unanimity makes it likely that there are mechanisms at work other than objective evaluation of artistic merit. (Assuming there to be any such thing.) But it doesn't give much reason (or any) to think that artistic merit isn't an important part of the assessment.

4 It seems that this sort of issue is a big deal to you. I suggest that you might be happier if you just stopped worrying about how your cultural preferences differ from those you see as mainstream, and got on with enjoying whatever you enjoy.

[EDITED to avoid misformatting caused by LW's numbered-list magic.]

comment by komponisto · 2013-11-14T03:44:12.360Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I suggest that you might be happier if you just stopped worrying about how your cultural preferences differ from those you see as mainstream, and got on with enjoying whatever you enjoy.

Or, alternatively, bite the bullet and actually update on "mainstream" opinion. This entails becoming curious about why mainstream opinion is what it is, rather than skeptical that its judgements are correct (on the basis of your immediate experience).

comment by Vaniver · 2013-11-14T16:18:18.858Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

This entails becoming curious about why mainstream opinion is what it is, rather than skeptical that its judgements are correct (on the basis of your immediate experience).

Well, he's done that. It's not clear to me that the OP was written from a place of skepticism rather than a place of curiosity.

comment by gjm · 2013-11-14T09:34:12.947Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

becoming curious rather than skeptical

I think he should be both. What he shouldn't be is dismissive.

(He should also consider the possibility that aesthetic judgements simply aren't matters of objective fact, at least not wholly, but for present purposes I think that's effectively a linguistic quibble.)

comment by sediment · 2013-11-19T14:35:33.765Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Hold on: if I may back up a second, I'd like to question the premise of this post: that it even makes sense to talk about a "best author who has ever lived". Now, fair enough, this isn't your fault - plenty of people do describe Shakespeare in these terms, including those writers in the Paris Review. But the idea seems erroneous to me. It seems to entail a rank ordering of writers: if Shakey is number one, who is second best, or third? How about the fifty-seventh best, or three-thousandth? The creation of such an ordering would necessarily entail comparing the merits of such incommensurates as Kafka and Chaucer, Beckett and Whitman, Chekhov and Laurence Sterne. The idea that there is any objective way to do this seems completely silly to me. I suppose you could posit some metric of merit and measure that; call it "influence quotient", say. (I.Q. for short.) Just don't expect it to actually correspond to anything you could point to in the real world. (I make the link with I.Q. because I think it's an instructive comparisand on the usefulness of reducing an incredibly complex, multivariate entity to a single figure, and then claiming to have measured it.)

A second point: I'm also a little puzzled by the idea that one could peel back the layers of critical appreciation (or, if you prefer, the "reality distortion field") that have accreted around Shakespeare, in order to somehow appraise the work in-and-of-itself. Well, my take is that in the arts, it's impossible to appraise a work in-and-of-itself. (You mention that you like Borges; Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote is a meditation on just this: the centrality of context to the understanding of works of literature, and the impossibility of evaluating a text without considering its context.) The strength of a work is always to do with its resonances and analogies with the outside world. If - as in the case of Shakey - some of those resonances have been brought out or strengthened by particularly brilliant pieces of critical writing antecedent to the work itself - well, so what? The work now contains those strengthened resonances, and is better off for it.

In other words, I don't see how it's desirable (let alone possible) to separate out these after-the-fact forms of merit from those that are in some sense inherent to the work. I think all that critical appreciation doesn't just make Shakespeare's plays seem better; it actually makes them better. (From the fact that the phrase "raw talent" is in use in this discussion, though, I'd guess that not everyone here would agree with my hardline-subjectivist take on this last point. Luckily, you don't have to buy my second point in order to buy my first.)

comment by CronoDAS · 2013-11-14T18:46:38.295Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Some of the Shakespeare plays I've read, I've liked; I'm quite fond of Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet. I even liked A Midsummer Night's Dream, but I can certainly understand not liking it. Julius Caesar is definitely overrated, though, and I've heard that there are some real stinkers among his plays, too. When Shakespeare is good, though, he's damn good.

Narrative poetry is indeed out of fashion these days, so it's hard to compare Shakespeare directly to contemporary authors - it's like trying to compare an opera to a play because they're both stage productions - but I'm willing to go out on a limb and say that no, Shakespeare isn't the best writer of all time, Terry Pratchett is.

comment by lmm · 2013-11-14T23:25:24.727Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Julius Caesar is, like A Few Good Men, mostly building up to the famous speech. But I thought it had interesting - and LW-relevant - things to say about the merits of trusting reason, friendship, or one's moral intuition.

Comedy ages very quickly. I'll be interested to see how Pratchett is regarded in 20 years, but I don't have a lot of hope.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2013-11-15T00:49:42.190Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Julius Caesar is one of the ones I like, because Brutus does the right thing and is killed for it.

comment by Vaniver · 2013-11-15T07:12:14.928Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Julius Caesar is one of the ones I like, because Brutus does the right thing and is killed for it.

I am not sure why I am consistently surprised by how bleak your tastes are. You'd think I would update.

comment by gwern · 2013-11-15T00:41:03.486Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Comedy ages very quickly. I'll be interested to see how Pratchett is regarded in 20 years, but I don't have a lot of hope.

I wouldn't be that pessimistic. As far as British humorous writers go: Douglas Adams wrote decades ago (and died >12 years ago), and he seems to still be regarded as pretty funny. I read the Hitchhiker books 4 or 5 years ago, and enjoyed them. People still enjoy Monty Python and that's pushing half a century now.

Now, 200 years is a different story.

comment by lmm · 2013-11-15T12:52:18.931Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Acknowledged up to a point. Adams is still highly regarded, but you certainly lose something even at this remove (e.g. the opening line about a species so primitive they still thought digital watches were a good idea falls flat, at least for me). While some Python sketches are funny, I've read that the BBC felt the series as a whole wasn't funny enough to re-run.

comment by gwern · 2013-11-17T03:13:21.548Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, some of it will age, but a lot of it still remains. I found The Birds somewhat funny when I read it, and it's, what, 2200 years old now?

While some Python sketches are funny, I've read that the BBC felt the series as a whole wasn't funny enough to re-run.

I have the full boxed set of the TV series and have watched it through. I don't blame them for not re-running the whole thing (it's huge!), and it's also not very 'dense'. But I think if they were willing to edit it down, it could be competitive. Some of the Python sketches are very funny.

comment by CronoDAS · 2013-11-15T03:33:54.327Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

For an even older example of British humor that's still funny, try Gilbert and Sullivan. They're about 100 years old.

comment by komponisto · 2013-11-15T19:12:20.712Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Getting closer to 150; Gilbert and Sullivan were both dead 100 years ago.

comment by CronoDAS · 2013-11-16T03:28:23.928Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I want a video of Robin Hanson singing this song:

If you give me your attention, I will tell you what I am:
I'm a genuine philanthropist - all other kinds are sham.
Each little fault of temper and each social defect
In my erring fellow-creatures, I endeavour to correct.
To all their little weaknesses I open people's eyes,
And little plans to snub the self-sufficient I devise;
I love my fellow-creatures - I do all the good I can -
Yet everybody says I'm such a disagreeable man!
And I can't think why!

To compliments inflated I've a withering reply,
And vanity I always do my best to mortify;
A charitable action I can skilfully dissect;
And interested motives I'm delighted to detect.
I know everybody's income and what everybody earns,
And I carefully compare it with the income-tax returns;
But to benefit humanity, however much I plan,
Yet everybody says I'm such a disagreeable man!
And I can't think why!

I'm sure I'm no ascetic; I'm as pleasant as can be;
You'll always find me ready with a crushing repartee;
I've an irritating chuckle, I've a celebrated sneer,
I've an entertaining snigger, I've a fascinating leer;
To everybody's prejudice I know a thing or two;
I can tell a woman's age in half a minute - and I do -
But although I try to make myself as pleasant as I can,
Yet everybody says I'm such a disagreeable man!
And I can't think why!

comment by gwern · 2013-11-17T03:10:56.289Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

You say you want it, but your revealed preferences indicate otherwise: I bet you could cash in on a cryonics hour for that 5-minute song. And he'll let you record it and distribute it. But you haven't even signed up for cryonics yet, have you?

comment by CronoDAS · 2013-11-20T04:11:20.976Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

My reason for not signing up for cryonics is that I don't think I have the money to do so; I have savings, but no significant income.

In other words: I want it, but not as much as I want twenty thousand dollars (or however much a cryonics membership will actually cost me over a lifetime). In the future, I might be able to afford ongoing insurance payments, but that is not something I want to start today.

comment by taelor · 2013-11-17T04:34:06.807Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I personally thought Cassius was by far the most interesting character in Julius Caesar.

comment by CronoDAS · 2013-11-15T03:16:08.943Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Comedy ages very quickly.

It can but it doesn't have to. Lysistrata is still funny, as are Gilbert and Sullivan.

Don Quixote is also a comedy.

comment by Baughn · 2013-11-14T23:35:21.197Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I've read Shakespeare, and watched one of his plays, and I find him decent.

Adjusting for cultural mismatches and the number of authors back then, I find it probable that he indeed was one of the best of his time - possibly the best, I haven't read all the others. However, I have no trouble naming any number of modern stories that are far superior, even - I believe - adjusting for said cultural mismatches.

Modern authors are simply better, on a per-author basis. There are many reasons why this might be; more time, more schooling, better tools... and of course there are simply more of them.

If I were to name the best author in history (so far), I'm not sure who it'd be, but the authors who'd be in the running are uniformly recent. Stefan Gagne and his City of Angles, for instance, would be high on the list. Shakespeare wouldn't figure on it.

comment by CronoDAS · 2013-11-14T18:52:14.307Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I wonder if "everyone likes Shakespeare" is a product of Shakespeare writing a wider variety of types of stories than many contemporary writers, so that the famous writers can all find at least one work they really like and ignore the ones they don't? For example, two people can both say they like Stephen Spielberg movies, when one is thinking of Jaws and the other is thinking of Lincoln?

comment by APMason · 2017-10-27T00:36:33.045Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

shakespeare is good tho

comment by Craig_Heldreth · 2013-11-16T14:13:14.965Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

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.

Your unease may be from the audience reaction, not the action on stage. The action on stage is black magic, in which the King of the Fairies can get away with it because he is powerful enough to escape the consequences of black magic dabbling. This is pretty damn terrifying and not funny at all if you think about it. We are all there in the audience watching a comedy and we don't want to be terrified, and we don't want to think too much. But why do people laugh at that on repeat viewings? I'll try and make a mental note to check if I laugh the next time I see it; that would be a rude surprise.

What thou seest when thou dost wake

Do it for thy true love take

. . .

Wake when some vile thing is near

adds up to one of the worst curses in the library. Shakespeare violated the prime directive of karma with this plot element and he got away with it. Who's to say whether that is the greatest genius but it certainly is skill.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2013-11-17T03:26:56.403Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Getting the right empathic distance for humor is a subtle question. As far as I can tell, the idea that love potions are a horrible invasion of individual autonomy is only a few decades old.

comment by Izeinwinter · 2013-11-15T16:35:50.623Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Actually, I think you missed a major explanation. Shakespeare - by virtue of being a major cultural institution - gets his plays preformed at a much, much stronger level of competence than any given random playwright. Even enthusiastic amateurs, when putting on the scottish play are not merely working from the words on the page, but from a living tradition of who the characters are, and how they should be played for maximal impact. There is no such thing as an actress who has no understanding of how to play lady M.

And this fact, that everyone preforming his works are steeped in them, makes the plays seem stronger than they are - After all, the performances are typically stronger, so that must be to the credit of the works, no? Well, no. It's to the credit of the tradition and the work. Which cannot easily be separated, because the tradition didn't glomp onto Shakespeare at random.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-11-15T16:15:18.339Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I have no idea how you managed to generate such stochasticity in the line spacing.

I had other complaints, of course, but gwern has addressed them far better. The resulting thread (and past experience) has demonstrated thoroughly the futility of bringing them up.

comment by passive_fist · 2013-11-14T21:48:38.000Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Hypothesis #1 is that Shakespeare was the greatest author who ever lived

Greatest author across all time periods and all human languages? Not very likely, considering that one of the main factors of his large popularity was the spread of the English language and the spread of the British empire throughout the 17th to 19th centuries. Even if you consider Shakespeare as the best author of his period in the neighborhood of, say, a few centuries, you're still excluding all other languages and all other time periods.

There are other examples of authors who's popularity was boosted by the spread of a language. There are examples in Roman, Spanish, German, Japanese, and Persian, for instance. For each of these lucky ones, though, there were probably hundreds of authors who were forgotten as their languages were. For all we know, there could have been a literary genius in a remote tribe in Africa who was forgotten the day his village was attacked by the neighboring one.

If you change your hypothesis to "Shakespeare was the greatest English language author who ever lived", then it starts looking more likely.

comment by Protagoras · 2013-11-14T10:00:05.159Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The only part of your hypothesis 2 that I find really plausible is that there is no doubt a greater likelyhood of of the well known Greatest Author in some literary tradition being early, because part of why they resonate so much is the way their influence shaped later culture and taste. So I'm willing to concede the possibility that there may be some sense in which Shakespeare is not as good as a handful of more recent authors, who get less recognition because of timing. But he was certainly far better than his contemporaries; he didn't win out by luck. I'm afraid he's mostly popular due to his genius.

I don't always like great classics myself. What little I've read of Goethe I mostly found annoying. But I could see why he's so well-regarded; he just happened to push some personal buttons of mine in the works of his I read. So I'd never try to convince anyone he's over-rated. Since you seem to be much more familiar with Shakespeare than I am with Goethe, I'm surprised you can't see Shakespeare's equally obvious strengths, even if you don't enjoy his work.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2013-11-14T16:32:24.055Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

part of why they resonate so much is the way their influence shaped later culture and taste.

That's a good hypothesis. It's tricky in Shakespeare's case, because we don't write at all like Shakespeare now. For instance, the second rule most writers learn is "Show, don't tell." Shakespeare always told and never showed. If he wanted to convince you that two people were in love, he'd have them tell you at length how much in love they were, rather than have them do something loving. (There's even an odd soliloquy in Hamlet where Hamlet complains that other men merely proclaim and act their grief in a way that no viewer can verify, while he, Hamlet, experiences true inner grief. This soliloquy is exactly the kind of proclamation that it complains about.)

Or consider clarity. Writers today, at least the ones people actually read rather than set on their coffee-tables, value clarity of style. Shakespeare deliberately obscured most of what he wrote. He isn't difficult to understand because he was an Elizabethan. Other Elizabethan works are relatively easy to understand. Shakespeare inverts word order, fills his lines with tongue twisters, makes up words, and writes gigantic run-on sentences in which the verb may be separated from its object by four or five independent clauses and as many metaphors. The writers who do strive to be unclear, like Joyce and Faulkner, I blame on Shakespeare, and on the culture that sprung up after him saying that art must be highly-stylized, and preferably difficult to understand.

I recognize many strengths in Shakespeare, particularly when compared to his often shallow and closed-minded (or close-lipped) contemporaries. But I think much of his reputation relies on the prettiness of his words, and so proclaiming the genius of Shakespeare is really taking the "style over content" side in the style-vs.-content literary debate. I'm firmly in the "content over style" camp.

comment by Vaniver · 2013-11-14T18:09:46.790Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Shakespeare always told and never showed. If he wanted to convince you that two people were in love, he'd have them tell you at length how much in love they were, rather than have them do something loving.

Um, he was writing plays. The showing part is the director's job.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2013-11-15T01:06:49.970Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

No. Plays have stage directions. The director is responsible for interpreting the story, not creating it. If the actions that convince us characters feel what they say they feel aren't in the script, the writer has failed. Read some movie scripts. Characters do and say things that reveal their feelings, rather than proclaiming their feelings as in Shakespeare, and those things are in the script.

And "showing" can be done in dialogue. The first words spoken in the script for "Apocalypse now" are: "It's crazy -- sugar is up to 200 dollars a ton -- sugar!" The fact that the character is talking about sugar prices and war in the same discussion shows you where his true concerns lie.

comment by asr · 2013-11-14T16:53:32.001Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I recognize many strengths in Shakespeare, particularly when compared to his shallow and closed-minded contemporaries. But I think much of his reputation relies on the prettiness of his words, and so proclaiming the genius of Shakespeare is really taking the "style over content" side in the style-vs.-content literary debate. I'm firmly in the "content over style" camp.

As counter-evidence, Shakespeare has been widely successful in translation. There wouldn't be Russian ballets and Italian operas based on his work if its appeal was due to the style of the English.

comment by gjm · 2013-11-14T17:13:42.201Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not sure about that. It could be that (1) English people loved Shakespeare because his writing is so pretty, (2) England was powerful and influential, and then (3) non-English people admired Shakespeare for signalling reasons.

A first-rate musical work can be based on a not-so-great text. For instance, many of Schubert's greatest songs are settings of poems by Wilhelm Müller, and they really aren't particularly good poems. (At least, they don't seem so to me and I don't get the impression that others generally disagree.) So there could be ballets and operas based on Shakespeare's plays, and they could be really good ballets and operas, even if the plays weren't very good.

comment by lmm · 2013-11-15T01:24:25.437Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

A musical setting of a poem isn't really about the words, and poems are already not really about their content; I think the relationship between a play and an adaptation of that play is much tighter.

comment by komponisto · 2013-11-14T03:24:51.202Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

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:

...Yes, the answer is 0, since hypothesis 2 is "an Elizabethan author was the greatest author of all time":

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".

(I think you should reword this to clarify what you really meant, whatever that might be.)

comment by PhilGoetz · 2013-11-14T06:32:50.752Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW · GW

No, hypothesis 2 is not "an Elizabethan author was the greatest author of all time". Hypothesis 2 is what I said it was. I don't think I can say it any more clearly.

comment by komponisto · 2013-11-15T19:14:40.880Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

You should have been more explicit about your assumption that "greatest author" != "person humans 'elevate' as greatest author", especially since I think it's false.

comment by ChristianKl · 2013-11-14T13:03:15.417Z · score: -2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I simple explanation is that Shakespeare simply had luck. People liked him because other people liked them instead of for reasons inherent to his work.