The Philistines are here. They are taking over. Their contempt for the canon of Western literature knows no bounds. They are even dismissing Shakespeare.
For what, you ask?
For not being “relatable.”
No less than Ira Glass, famed NPR talk show host, a man who Rebecca Mead calls “the Bard of Public Radio” has dismissed Shakespeare because, alas and alack, he, Glass cannot relate to the greatest writer in the English language.
If Twitter is a place in which a user may be rewarded for exposing his most stupid self, Ira Glass put the medium to good use this week, when, after watching John Lithgow appear as King Lear at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, he tweeted his response: “Shakespeare sucks.” Glass admired Lithgow’s performance but thought the play flawed. “No stakes, not relatable,” he wrote. Later, he tweeted that the productions of “Richard III” and “Twelfth Night” in which he had seen Mark Rylance perform last winter had affected him similarly: “fantastic acting, surprisingly funny, but Shakespeare is not relatable, unemotional.”
In a better time no one would have dared admit that he could not relate to Shakespeare or that Shakespeare had nothing much to say to him. Had he done so everyone would have understood that he was a semi-literate clod who was incapable of dealing with great art. Everyone would have known that he could not even recognize greatness when it was staring him in the face.
Countless readers over many centuries have recognized the greatness of Shakespeare. They have allowed him to speak to them.
If you, kindly young soul that you are, come along and say that you disagree, your opinion, dare I say, isn’t worth spit.
No such scruples for Ira Glass. He is happy to dismiss Shakespeare on the grounds that it is not “relatable.” Mead exposes the inherent silliness of the notion that an artist must address the quotidian concerns of his audience, lest his work be dismissed as not relatable.
But to demand that a work be “relatable” expresses a different expectation: that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer. The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her. If the concept of identification suggested that an individual experiences a work as a mirror in which he might recognize himself, the notion of relatability implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.
Of course, we do better to open ourselves to the artwork, to assume that it has something to say to us, that it concerns us… even if we do not understand exactly how. Art does not offer up the meaning of life. It does not tell you how to decorate your apartment, where to send your children to school or whether to accept a date with this or that person.
It might simply be dramatizing an important moral dilemma. You task is to let it speak to you, to enjoy its beauty and to draw whatever conclusions you may. If you fail to relate to it; if you fail to listen to it; you have a problem.
In that case art has shown you to be a solipsist, incapable of thinking beyond your narrow existence.
Mead states it well in her conclusion:
To appreciate “King Lear”—or even “The Catcher in the Rye” or “The Fault in Our Stars”—only to the extent that the work functions as one’s mirror would make for a hopelessly reductive experience. But to reject any work because we feel that it does not reflect us in a shape that we can easily recognize—because it does not exempt us from the active exercise of imagination or the effortful summoning of empathy—is our own failure. It’s a failure that has been dispiritingly sanctioned by the rise of “relatable.” In creating a new word and embracing its self-involved implications, we have circumscribed our own critical capacities. That’s what sucks, not Shakespeare.