Why Shakespeare?

Why Shakespeare

Shakespeare, we have been told, is extremely important. You may agree or disagree, but do you know why he matters to so many people? This book invites Shakespeare lovers and haters alike to consider the question of his popularity by looking into the relationship between his methods of artistic creation and the values of the modern world.

Blending statistics and storytelling, Why Shakespeare? tracks the playwright’s afterlives throughout time, around the world, across the academic disciplines, into new artistic forms from painting and music to film and social media, from colonizers and NAZIs to civil rights movements and prison theater, and in light of identity categories such as gender, race, sexuality, class, religion, disability, and the intersections among them. This exploration reveals, surprisingly, that Shakespeare’s popularity grows less from the literary quality of his texts, and more from the depth and variety of problems—textual, thematic, and ethical—in them. 



Shakestats: Writing About Shakespeare Between the Humanities and the Social Sciences

Why Shakespeare? Irony and Liberalism in Canonization


What ‘The Northman’ is Really About



As of June 2020, the MLA International Bibliography contains 50,021 items about Shakespeare, who is nearly four times more popular than Joyce, followed in order by Dante, Goethe, Chaucer, Milton, Dickens, Cervantes, James, Faulkner, Woolf, and the rest.

MLA Chart
Top 20 Authors in the MLA International Bibliography (By Number of Items)

Everyone thought England’s national author would be Milton—including Milton himself. Google’s Ngram Viewer suggests that Milton was more popular than Shakespeare up to the 1790s. Shakespeare’s popularity had peaks in the 1890s and 1950s, then took a downward turn. Rebounding in the 1980s, his reach is now as wide as ever. “Shakespeare has become a global icon,” Jonathan Bate wrote as the world celebrated the 450th birthday in 2014.

Ngram Chart
Google Ngram for John Milton and William Shakespeare (With Variant Spellings)

Why Shakespeare? Empire often seeks out a literary figurehead, of course, usually the author of a mythic epic about the culture’s foundation. Greece had its Homer, Rome its Virgil, and the Holy Roman Empire its Dante. Henry VIII declaring England an empire in 1533 launched a debate about who would be its literary icon. England eventually opted not for an epic poet like Chaucer, Spenser, or Milton but for the dramatist Shakespeare. Why?

Our answer must be able to explain the eighteenth-century surge in Shakespeare’s popularity, and its resurgence since the 1980s. We must ask Why was Shakespeare chosen as England’s national treasure? but also Why is Shakespeare the only author mentioned by name as required reading in the US Common Core State Standards Initiative? as well as Why are there so many global Shakespearean adaptations in cultures with no love for Great Britain? Why was Shakespeare a darling of German philosophers like Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche? Why so many modern Shakespearean offshoots? Why so much appropriation, both literary and commercial? Why does Hollywood love Romeo and Juliet? Why the pilgrimages to Shakespeare’s birthplace? Why so many texts that aren’t Shakespeare called “Shakespearean”? Why were the opening ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympics based on The Tempest? Why do 50 percent of schoolchildren across the world study Shakespeare? Why did UNESCO grant documents about Shakespeare’s life the same status as the Magna Carta and Gutenberg Bible? Why does Shakespeare matter so much to so many people? Why Shakespeare?

This book neither celebrates nor attacks Shakespeare. It tells the stories of those who have, offering descriptive—not normative—answers to questions about the creation of cultural value. Shakespeare lovers and haters alike are invited to consider the question of his popularity by looking into the relationship between his methods of artistic creation and the assumptions, motives, and commitments of the modern world. This interdisciplinary method brings literary studies together with sociology: quantitative statistics identify Shakespeare’s manifestations through the ages, across the disciplines, and around the world—meaning there are lots of charts—and qualitative cultural theory helps explain them.

This approach shows that Shakespeare is popular not because his texts are better than others’, but because they’re more problematic. Textually, thematically, and ethically, they are rife with difficult questions that attract massive attention. Most especially, in proclaiming freedom of interpretation to audiences while perpetuating structural social inequalities, Shakespeare’s dramatic method artistically enacts the qualities of English liberalism—both its virtues and vices. That’s why modern England chose Shakespeare as its cultural figurehead, and why Shakespeare and liberalism manifest similar controversies today.


Where previous surveys of Shakespeare’s afterlives have centered English theater, this one is global, inclusive, and multi-disciplinary. It starts with stories of Shakespeare deciphering market demand for English history plays, international performances during his own lifetime, and proto-feminist adaptations from his peers. His popularity declined in the Restoration—a poet of disorder during an age of order—and queer sexuality was edited out of the Sonnets in the eighteenth century. His works received so many eighteenth-century editions, not because they were loved, but because they had so many holes.


Shakespeare fills painting, music, ballet, and opera—non-linguistic fine arts relying on his well-known narratives. Then comes Abraham Lincoln identifying with Macbeth, and the politics of class in the “Shakespeare authorship controversy.” And his penchant for irony, granting audiences freedom of interpretation, felt like living in the ideal nation-state to the political liberals of the Romantic Age.


There’s Tolstoy’s Shakes-hate, and authors from colonized lands speaking back to Shakespeare, with fire. Latin American Tempests, Nazi stages, Mexican cinema, and Czechoslovakian dissidence. Science fiction and Shakespeare in the Park. Dueling politicizations of Hamlet in Indonesia, and different denominations of Christianity claiming Shakespeare. Julius Caesar in Sierra Leone. Lines to buy The Merchant of Venice in China after the death of Mao. Samurai Macbeth. Romeo and Juliet through Indian endogamy.


Several stories are theorized. There is “adaptation refraction,” referring to the new spins on old stories in both Shakespeare’s texts and their modern offshoots. “Strategic bardolatry” is Shakespeare-worship as a Machiavellian rhetorical maneuver. The “Shakespearean slingshot” grows from his role in the early years of new forms of American drama—film and musical—which leveraged his prominence to build their artforms, though soon Shakespeare was exploiting their cultural momentum to gain currency himself.


Shakespeare has been a Trojan Horse for subversiveness in schools and prisons. He appears in foundational documents across the disciplines—from philosophy and psychology to anthropology and women’s studies. “Shakespeare” is now its own discipline. He shows up in grade schools and retirement homes. There are sign-language performances, and Richard III in wheel chairs. Love’s Labor’s Lost stirred controversy in Afghanistan, and Henry IV, Part 1 has been used in therapy for veterans with PTSD. Video games, Twitter adaptations, recent novels, Shakespeare tourism, and climate activism. Game of Thrones, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Zoom performances during coronavirus lockdown, trans readings of Shakespearean cross-dressings, and Measure for Measure played by Black women in a North Brooklyn gymnasium as protests against police violence rise up across town.

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