Rowling versus Shakespeare: response to reader reviews

I'm going to use the space on this chapter to respond to reader reviews. Hopefully FP won't get mad and think I'm trying to turn this into a discussion thread, but this gives me a chance to clarify points I made or to make points that I did not in the original. Thank you to all who provided input. I expected I would get some harsh reviews, and I still stand by what I say. All I ask is that you consider my arguments and try not to get into the "burn the one who preaches the blasphemy" mentality.

Remember the central argument: If Shakespeare were re-written in modern, colloquial language, to whom would it still appeal to?


"I get that you're mad about the guy ripping on Harry Potter and believe me I'm a Harry Potter fan too, but I'm not sure that's the best excuse to critisize Shakespeare."

I'm not just angry with Bloom because he knocks Harry Potter. This kind of literary snobbery isn't just directed at Rowling. I'm also defending other populist authors like Stephen King, Tom Clancy, Michael Crichton, and Nora Roberts. And I didn't really mean to knock Shakespeare (I did sort of get angry with my tone, and I shouldn't have) but just the belief that he is the demigod of literature.

"As for engaging plots look at Romeo and Juliet: two young lovers that have to hide their love, end up killing themselves because they loved each other so much and couldn't live without each other. Hamlet: the son of a dead king seeks to find out if his step father murdered his father and ends up transgressing into madness. Shakespeare's plots were well thought out, even more so because unlike in today's world there wasn't a surplus of these types of story lines."

I have to disagree with you there. First of all, I don't know if you are implying this, but it would really be misleading to say that Shakespeare somehow "invented" these sorts of plots that you mentioned. Situations like the one in Romeo and Juliet are ones that were common especially in old times when marriages were arranged. And Hamlet (Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra also) deals with dysfunctional ruling families. On the other hand with modern populist authors, they usually deal with highly unusual situations that would not likely happen in real life. Harry Potter books (as well as most fantasy and science fiction books) deal with even more out-of-reality situations - that is what I mean when I say that these sort of plots are what appeals to the mainstream audience.

In Harold Bloom's Wall Street Journal editorial (which you can read for free, just Google "Harold Bloom Harry Potter" and it should come up) he compares Harry Potter to some (I think it was) 19th century story about boarding school kids. And what was his point? There have been countless novels written over the centuries, sooner or later one of them is going to take place in some sort of boarding school or orphanage type setting. It doesn't mean that Rowling copied it and converted it into the fantasy genre. I doubt that she has even heard of the story that Bloom refers to.

Trying to say that Shakespeare somehow pioneered these plots is like trying to credit one particular ancient civilization with the invention of agriculture, writing, or architecture. Sure, it may be known that one particular ancient culture used it first, but it did not emerge in only one culture and only spread to the descendants of that culture. These things emerged in completely isolated civilizations and each one had unique architecture, art, and farming methods. Likewise, the early writers (literature was around long before Shakespeare's time, but not nearly as many writers had lived and passed on in his time than now) tend to get credit for somehow "inventing" certain plots, which seems to completely defy logic, in my opinion. I can make a side-example to mathematics. It has been a long time since there have been any major discoveries in math. Does that mean that great mathematical minds such as Gauss, Euler, and Newton are extinct in this world? No, it means that ideas and concepts that are reasonably easy to uncover have all been discovered. Similarly, by now almost every mundane but realistic situation has been dealt with in literature. It does not mean that that person has perspicacity beyond others that follow in their footsteps.

And of course, you can look at any successful and popular soap opera or sitcom and see the plots have to be more sophisticated than the ones that were in Shakespeare plays.

"Also, Shakespeare's words may be lyrical but even if you were to translate them into today's world it's amazing how he was able to take words and manipulate them in such a way that one simple sentence may have five different meanings."

This is exactly what I was talking about in the essay. Why is it fair to think that someone is somehow a better writer because they use ambiguous language?

"Everyday you will use at least two sentences from the place Hamlet without even knowing it. And you said Shakespeare didn't affect anyone? I think todays' society using two sentences a day without even reazling it shows us just how much he affected the entire world for years."

Two sentences from Hamlet? I think that's a big of an exaggeration. Yes, there are plenty of famous lines from classical poetry and people will use them without even knowing where they are coming from. There are certain classical musical themes that many people will recognize but probably do not know the composer or the title. Even a lot of popular movies have famous lines ("Hasta la vista, baby!") that people repeat. How does this make Shakespeare good?

"The whole verbal music thing doesn't really hold up either, sure I'm mean Shakespeare took it to the extreme sometimes but that's the way they talked and wrote back then. You can't just discount the classics because they spoke differently than us. Frankenstein is a great book, one of my favourites. Sure Shelley didn't know a hell of a lot about science but then again it wasn't like it was a major subject in school for her like it is for us."

I can't hold it against Shelly for not knowing as much about science as Crichton, but I can use it to criticize her book. I think she did a decent job (not a great one) with the theme of how we treat people that are different from us, but then literary critics insist it was a chilling warning about the dangers of science when it's argumentation is actually quite feeble if not completely nonexistant, especially in the context of today's science when there is (to some extent, at least) a more ethically conscious and safety-minded scientific community.

"When you read Harry Potter there's no stroke of brilliance, nothing that makes people sit back and reflect on their lives."

What "stroke of brilliance" are you speaking of? This is one of my biggest problems with literary critiques is that people make statements like these without any real explanation to them. And is there nothing in Harry Potter that can make "people sit back and reflect on their lives"? Of course, you can say that people may no be able to relate to the Harry Potter characters as much since it's a fantasy setting but I already explained that appeal earlier. How does Shakespeare or any olden non-populist literature do that while populist literature does not? And how is it that a literary form based on engaging, unrealistic plots inferior and/or less sophisticated than those that people would likely relate more directly too?

Let me give you an example of how Harry potter could make someone "reflect on their lives". One could read Harry Potter and see Voldemort as someone or something in their life that they must realize will never go away and must be confronted if it is to be eliminated. Of course, such a theme has probably already been dealt with in some book long ago, but that doesn't mean that Rowling has no real insight or creativity.

"Just compare the writing, big difference. So yes, the professors are wrong in calling Harry Potter bad books, but you can't just go and insult Shakespeare because someone picked on J. K Rowling."

"Comparing the writing" is what I have done. I see no difference between classical literature and modern populist literature except that classical literature relies on verbal music, and has less sophisticated albeit more realistic plots. And again, I'm sorry for the sort of angry tone I had, I'm really angrier at Bloom than I am Shakespeare.


"One more note: Have you ever actually read Shakespeare?"

What high school student makes it through four years without getting exposed to Shakespeare? To get through high school, I had to read Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Macbeth. The former two I actually read and completely unimpressed and the latter two I used the cliffnotes. Like I said before, under the shroud of the musical language and the poetry are really not-so-clever plots and boring, every-day characters.