Thursday, 23 August 2012

Why Are Some Shakespearean Plays More Well Known Than Others?

Why are some of Shakespeare's plays
barely heard of?

Everybody, even someone who would like to spit in Shakespeare’s eye, has heard of Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear. However, a few of Shakespeare’s plays are less well known: King John, Henry VIII and Cymbeline for example. So, why are some Shakespearean plays more famous than others?

This is a question that was posed to me and, to be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure how to answer. A simple, “because they are,” didn’t seem particularly helpful. So, let me try and answer it with another question. Why are some films more popular than others?

Is it Because They’re Better?

I’m not going to pretend that the quality of Shakespeare’s work doesn’t vary, because it does. An early play, like Titus Andronicus, is pretty scrappy compared with King Lear. However, I don’t think this is an indicator for popularity. I would rank The Comedy of Errors among Shakespeare’s ‘less great’ plays, but it’s still widely known.

And if we bring the issue back to modern movies, there is, similarly, no discernable link between popularity and quality. I’m sure you know at least one film, that you think is brilliant, and yet very few of your friends have heard of it. Sometimes there really is no accounting for taste.

So, works of literature of drama that become immensely popular aren’t necessarily ‘better’ or offering a deeper insight into humanity. In fact, let’s be honest, most books, plays and films that strike it big in the mainstream are quite the opposite.

Shakespeare’s Box Office Smashes

Why is Hamlet more famous than King John?
Undoubtedly, in Shakespeare’s own time, some of his plays were bigger hits than others. However, it was during the Victorian era that our modern perceptions of ‘popular’ Shakespeare works was formed.

During the latter part of the 17th and throughout the 18th centuries, Shakespeare’s work underwent a massive revival that catapulted him to the ‘genius’ status he continues to hold. And this is the period during which some of his plays were performed frequently, while others fell by the wayside.

I suspect there was no grand plan to promote certain plays over others. Theatre companies simply performed the works that drew in the biggest crowds. Therefore, the popular plays continued to get more popular, while the lesser known plays became more obscure to the general public.

Why do Schools Focus on The Popular Plays?

Macbeth remains one of Shakespeare's
most frequently performed plays
Of course, now, when we all learn at least one Shakespeare play at school, this divide between the plays is exacerbated.

There are two very good reasons for schools and universities to stick with the more well known plays. Firstly, students are likely to have heard of the play and, therefore, may be interested in learning more about it. And secondly, there are plentiful supplies of film, TV and stage adaptations of the popular works, meaning that students can actually see the play in action. Finding a DVD of Macbeth is much easier than trying to find a DVD of King John.

As I’m a firm believer in watching the plays in order to create enthusiasm for Shakespeare’s work, this makes perfect sense to me. Although, I must admit, I do think it would be interesting if schools started to dust off those more obscure works. And, of course, if we brought them out into the open, they would no longer be the ‘lesser known’ plays.

So, to sum up, some Shakespearean plays are more well known than others, because…they just are.

For more on Shakespeare and his work, check out What’s It All About, Shakespeare? An Introduction to The Bard of Avon.

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