The Bard’s Best? Nope…

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Shakespeare bracket
To help celebrate the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death (April 23) and 452nd of his birth (also April 23), the website Mashable has put together a “battle” for the “Best Shakespeare Play Ever.” It’s done up as a sort of sports playoff grid (a tournament bracket), broken into four categories.

Four? That’s right. Even though the First Folio was only divided into three categories, Mashable added their own:

The plays are organized into four quadrants based on the four genres of plays Shakespeare commonly wrote: comedies, histories, tragedies and weird magic stuff. (Okay, we may have made up that last category in order to get to four, but you know the type: the plays with ghosts, witches, gods, etc.)

So right off, you know this is more game than academia. And, you protest, there are 36 plays in the First Folio, plus a couple of others added since. This game only has 32. What about the rest?

Where are the The Two Gentlemen of Verona? It’s consider the Bard’s very first play.  Or The Merry Wives of Windsor – arguably one of the Bard’s most popular plays, possibly commissioned by Queen Elizabeth herself. It has Falstaff in it! How can any play with Falstaff be left out?

And the chart mentions Henry IV, but doesn’t specify which part (1 or 2 – part 2 is more Falstaff than part 1). Both are self-contained. Same with Henry VI: it has three parts, each a separate play, but which one is not specified. Part 1 is not well considered, and may be Shakespeare’s weakest effort.

The chart mentions Pericles – which was not included in the First Folio (FF). But it ignores The Two Noble Kinsmen, which was also not in the FF, but has since been accepted as a Shakespeare work (with Fletcher).

Then there’s the pairing of plays: odd at best, it strikes me as cobbled together by someone who hasn’t actually read the plays he or she has coupled, someone who doesn’t appreciate the differences and distinctions between the styles, categories and stories.

For example, Romeo and Juliet play off against Timon of Athens. Both were grouped in the FF as tragedies, but aside from that, any similarity ends. R&J was written around 1595, ToA was written a decade later, a collaboration with Middleton. R&J is a story about a young couple and the feud between their Italian families. ToA is about a rich,Greek misanthrope who discovers the infidelity of his friends, with no love interest in the play. They are completely mismatched.

Henry V is paired with King John. H5 is one of the Bard’s great plays, rich with stirring speeches, action, tension and drama. KJ is written entirely in verse (the only other such play is Richard II) and is mostly about court intrigues. H5 has been performed many times and Kenneth Branagh made a stirring movie of it in 1989 and it was included in the 2012 Hollow Crown series (great news! Hollow Crown 2 is coming soon…).

But look at the other pairings: Julius Caesar vs As You Like It. Anthony and Cleopatra vs Coriolanus. Richard II vs Henry VIII. Hamlet vs. Cymbeline! It’s utter nonsense.

Yes, yes, the website lists them all and explains (sort of…) why they are head-to-head. Like this:

Othello: Jealousy kills. Also, racism. Lots and lots of racism.

Troilus and Cressida: The Trojan War, but not the parts you learned in history class.

or this:

King Lear: Don’t choose a favorite kid, because you’ll probably pick wrong and end up dead.

Titus Andronicus: Death begets revenge, which begets more death. And accidental cannibalism. And a more badass woman than Lady MacBeth. But mostly just a lot of death.

Titus Andronicus? It’s considered the Bard’s worst, most violent effort by such modern critics as Harold Bloom, who called it “a howler”, “a poetic atrocity”, “an exploitative parody,” ending his rant by writing, “I can concede no intrinsic value to Titus Andronicus.” King Lear, on the other hand, is one of the Bard’s best, according to most critics (including Bloom).

How can you match these two?

You’re supposed to tweet back your reason for the selection du jour, but in 140 characters (minus the play’s name and hashtag #ThisBeMadness) you can’t really say much.

Best? The best what? Dialogue? Plot? Setting? Action? Characters? Soliloquies? Ending?

Then there’s the inevitable playoff: one comedy vs one history; one tragedy vs one magic (Mashable’s made-up category). The winners of which then go head-to-head. No logic to this at all.

It’s all bollocks. Frankly, there can never be a “best of” winner for Shakespeare, only personal favourites (even then that may change with seasons). In fact, there are those who love Shakespeare, but don’t like some of the plays in their entirety, just some of the bits in them.

Now I’m happy to see Shakespeare being touted in the modern cultural milieu, almost regardless of the reason. I’m fine with having it gamified, if that’s what it takes to get generation XYZ (or whatever name it goes by) to read/watch the plays. But, if that’s the goal here, this game won’t do much for that.

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