Why Are Some Plays Better Recognized Than Others?

I tagged this blog post because I wanted to see how seriously the author took the question.  Is it one big self-fulfilling answer?  Plays are popular because we learned them all in school, but we learned them in school because they are more popular?  We recognize them because we’ve heard the quotes and seen the movies – but they’re quotable because they’re popular, not popular because they’re quotable.

There doesn’t seem to be a “right” answer.  There are certainly many contributing factors:

* Some plays, just like some books and movies, are better than others.  Everybody’s seen Star Wars, but only hardcore George Lucas fans have sought out THX-1138.  And before James Cameron had The Terminator, he had to deal with Piranha 2 : The Spawning.

* The reasons that some plays are taught more than others has nothing to do with their popularity. Julius Caesar, for instance, is often found in the school system primarily because there’s no sex humor in it for teachers to deal with (unlike Romeo and Juliet).

* Some plays are harder to produce (be it on stage, or screen).  Isn’t Antony and Cleopatra famous for having literally dozens of characters onstage at a time?

I know that there’s no single answer, but I wonder if one side contributes more to the equation than the other.  There are certainly practical issues that cause some plays to be more accessible than others, which in turn will result in more people knowing about those plays, which will result in stronger reinforcement of references from those plays.   That might be about 90% of the reason that we can all do large parts of Romeo and Juliet from memory. It’s because we’ve been beaten over the head with it since high school.

So then what about King Lear?  It’s not as frequently read in high schools.  You don’t see as many movie adaptations.  There is no balcony scene or dude dressed in black talking to a skull that stands out as the iconic scene from this one.  But if you know what the play is at all, you’re likely to agree that it’s the Mt. Everest of Shakespeare’s work.

I’ve always thought that (this will sound cheesy) Shakespeare comes to you when you’re ready for it.  Julius Caesar is an early starting point when students are already studying these real characters from ancient Rome.  And oh hey look at that, Romeo and Juliet pops up when you’re most likely to be your own lovestruck teenager.  Hamlet and his existential crisis hits around college age when you ask your own “Why am I here?” questions.  And Lear?  Lear takes a lifetime to understand.  I know that I couldn’t appreciate it 20 years ago.  Now, as a father (of daughters especially) I can begin to understand it.  Only much later in my life as I approach my retirement and ultimate death will I see it from an even deeper angle.  But there’s no way that your average high school student will *get* that.  Am I making sense?

This year’s Shakespeare Day Celebration is sponsored in part by Shakespeare Is Universal: Shakespeare truly is for everyone, and nothing demonstrates that sentiment better than his most famous quote of all, translated here into languages from around the world.   In celebration of Shakespeare’s birthday, show that you believe his works are just as relevant, powerful and important as they’ve ever been!

4 thoughts on “Why Are Some Plays Better Recognized Than Others?

  1. I've read Shakespeare in middle school, high school, undergrad, and grad school (Univ. Of Delaware), and I still have not read every Shakespeare play, and I do not feel bad about it. Love Macbeth and Midsummer. Never read Two Gentlemen of Verona. Love Julius Caesar, meh on Hamlet. Never read Pericles. You have to read what you are drawn to.

  2. I tend to think some of the stories (midsummer, r&j, hamlet for example) are just more accessible to people of all ages, which is why everyone reads the same ones in high school, etc.

  3. i know it's pretty long, but Richard III is probably one of my favorites. I juts love the sense of diabolical glee Richard has as he (metaphorically) capers about the stage.

  4. It's strange. I read Midsummer & Macbeth in middle school (not in regular classes, though, in special advanced ones — not bragging, just saying, they weren't part of the regular curriculum), then R&J, Hamlet, & Macbeth in high school — but when I moved here to Virginia, I found that they focus on Caesar in high school, which I hadn't read in school.

    What I find most interesting are which plays are most performed as "family" or "family friendly." Midsummer & Two Gents (because of Crab but, seriously, the end is NOT kid-friendly), often Hamlet & R & J.

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