The title of this course, Why Shakespeare?, sounds like the kind of question that would have been asked and answered numerous times in Shakespeare studies, especially in light of the turn to Shakespeare's reputation in the work of scholars such as Gary Taylor, Michael Dobson, Michael Bristol, and Marjorie Garber. When these critics consider Shakespeare's rise to fame and his lasting popularity in modern culture, however, they usually end up telling us how Shakespeare came to assume his position at the front of the Western canon, but not really why. Critics tend not to answer the difficult question of what it is about Shakespeare's art that led to his selection above all others, and what it is about modernity that led it to select Shakespeare above all others, and what the special relationship between Shakespeare and modernity is.
That is the particular way in which we will ask, "Why Shakespeare?" What is it about him - as opposed to, say, Chaucer or Spenser or Milton - that has led us to say, "He's the one for us," given his methods and concerns. And what is it about us that has led us to say, "He's the one for us," given our values and commitments. This course supposes, therefore, that the reason for Shakespeare's preeminent status is neither totally intrinsic nor totally extrinsic to his art.
In slightly different terms, we shall be adopting neither the sentimental view of a Harold Bloom who believes that Shakespeare invented the human as we know it nor the cynical view of a Gary Taylor who sees Shakespeare’s reputation as the by-product of British imperialism. Both of these approaches – the intrinsic and sentimental on the one hand, and the extrinsic and cynical on the other – focus too much on one side of the canonization equation, either the canonized text or the canonizing culture. We need an approach that mediates the two sides of the canonization process, such as the approach offered by Barbara Hernstein Smith in Contingencies of Value: “All value is radically contingent,” she says, “Being neither an inherent property of objects nor an arbitrary projection of subjects but, rather, the product of the dynamics of an economic system.” Nothing in Shakespeare's works necessarily guaranteed his canonization, yet something in those works encouraged it. Shakespeare was not simply the benefactor of an English or western modernity that needed a literary and cultural figurehead.