A while back, I became curious about how common this attitude was, especially among more educated people, and I ended up stumbling upon this essay by Leo Tolstoy entitled "A critical Essay on Shakespeare." Tolstoy's general opinion of Shakespeare becomes clear in the very beginning of the essay:
I remember the astonishment I felt when I first read Shakespeare. I expected to receive a powerful esthetic pleasure, but having read, one after the other, works regarded as his best: "King Lear," "Romeo and Juliet," "Hamlet" and "Macbeth," not only did I feel no delight, but I felt an irresistible repulsion and tedium... My consternation was increased by the fact that I always keenly felt the beauties of poetry in every form. Why should artistic works recognized by the whole world as those of a genius -- the works of Shakespeare -- not only fail to please me, but be disagreeable to me?
Tolstoy then selects King Lear as an example of Shakespeare's best work, providing examples of the glowing reviews it has received in order to justify this selection, and goes on to provide a detailed summary of this drama "as impartially as possible." Though he makes the occasional reference to such things as "characterless language" and "incessant, pompous raving," his summary seems to provide a fairly in-depth overview of the play. And then he goes on to provide a harsh critical analysis.
Although Tolstoy seems to have a variety of grievances, one of the biggest was his criticism of Shakespeare's characters:
It is not enough that all the characters speak in a way in which no living men ever did or could speak -- they all suffer from a common intemperance of language. Those who are in love, who are preparing for death, who are fighting, who are dying, all alike speak much and unexpectedly about subjects utterly inappropriate to the occasion, being evidently guided rather by consonances and play of words than by thoughts.
He goes on to complain about the way Shakespeare uses his characters as mouthpieces for whatever irrelevant ideas -- however deep or eloquently-worded -- may have crossed his mind as he was writing.
But one of the most interesting parts of Tolstoy's essay was his description of the ancient play by the unknown author about King Leir -- the work that inspired Shakespeare's drama. Tolstoy argued, fairly convincingly I thought, that the older version was better -- that the story was more coherent, that the characters behaved more understandably, and that the resolution was more inspiring. While I'm not sure this is completely true, it was fairly surprising to me to learn that one of Shakespeare's greatest works had been done before -- and that, allegedly at least, it had been done better.
Soon after reading the Tolstoy essay, related searches led me to this rebuttal by George Orwell, entitled "Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool." As the title may suggest, Orwell disagreed with Tolstoy:
One's first feeling is that in describing Shakespeare as a bad writer he is saying something demonstrably untrue. But this is not the case. In reality there is no kind of evidence or argument by which one can show that Shakespeare, or any other writer, is "good". Nor is there any way of definitely proving that -- for instance -- Warwick Beeping is "bad". Ultimately there is no test of literary merit except survival, which is itself an index to majority opinion.
In the face of an actual argument, resorting to this kind of post-modern hand-waving just strikes me as a bit of a cop out. But more importantly, I think Orwell is wrong about this.
Because there are people who've dedicated their lives to studying works of literature, analyzing theme and metaphor and the intricacies of language. It may not be a hard science like chemistry or physics, but I feel like there's at least something there -- some actual substance beyond a mere popularity contest. Is there really no better way to determine whether a modern pulp romance novel deserves the same degree of attention as Wuthering Heights, other than to sit around for fifty years and see if it survives?
For more examples of why Orwell is wrong, just look at any of the major religious texts. To imply that longevity is the single valid indicator of literary merit -- or vice versa -- is to ignore a vast body of historical and cultural influences, and I don't think it paints a realistic picture of how or why certain works persist through the generations.
Orwell also scoffs at Tolstoy's insinuation that the continuing widespread respect for respect for Shakespeare is the result of some kind of mass delusion:
If Shakespeare is all that Tolstoy has shown him to be, how did he ever come to be so generally admired? Evidently the answer can only lie in a sort of mass hypnosis, or "epidemic suggestion". The whole civilized world has somehow been deluded into thinking Shakespeare a good writer, and even the plainest demonstration to the contrary makes no impression, because one is not dealing with a reasoned opinion but with something akin to religious faith.
Orwell seems to place little stock in this explanation, but doesn't really attempt to offer a clear rebuttal. And I'm not convinced the idea can be so easily dismissed.
Being well-versed in Shakespeare confers a kind of intellectual status symbol -- you can say that you don't care for the writing of any modern author and that's your rightful opinion, but it's difficult to say that you don't care for the writing of Shakespeare without simply looking ignorant. It doesn't seem completely implausible to me that this sort of thing might have an impact on how the works are viewed and taught.
In conclusion, while I'm not sure I agree 100% with Tolstoy's analysis, I do sympathize with parts of it. And pondering the idea that Shakespeare's popularity might be a historical accident makes me wonder which random, obscure things from today might be inexplicably revered by the culture of the future.