Why Shakespeare is great
Those 300,000 ancient Athenians were very different than a random conglomeration of 300,000 people from this age, or any other, and it seems likely that a different sort of exemplar would emerge from their ranks.
From Edith Hamiilton:
"...but the Greeks did not think soberly about the exercise of the intellect. “Thoughts and ideas, the fair and immortal children of the mind,” as a Greek writer calls them, were a delight to them. Never, not in the brightest days of the Renaissance, has learning appeared in such a radiant light as it did to the gay young men of imperial Athens. Listen to one of them talking to Socrates, just waked up in the early dawn by a persistent hammering at his door: “What’s here?” he cries out, still half asleep. “O Socrates,” and the voice is that of a lad he knows well, “Good news, good news!” “It ought to be at this unearthly hour. Well, out with it.” The young fellow is in the house now. “O Socrates, Protagoras has come. I heard it yesterday evening. And I was going to you at once but it was so late—” “What’s it all about—Protagoras? Has he stolen something of yours?” The boy bursts out laughing. “Yes, yes, that’s just it. He’s robbing me of wisdom. He has it—wisdom, and he can give it to me. Oh, come and go with me to him. Start now.” That eager, delightful boy in love with learning can be duplicated in nearly every dialogue of Plato. Socrates has but to enter a gymnasium; exercise, games, are forgotten. A crowd of ardent young men surround him. Tell us this. Teach us that, they clamor. What is Friendship? What is Justice? We will not let you off, Socrates. The truth—we want the truth. “What delight,” they say to each other, “to hear wise men talk!” “Egypt and Phœnicia love money,” Plato remarks in a discussion on how nations differ. “The special characteristic of our part of the world is the love of knowledge.” “The Athenians,” said St. Luke, “and the strangers sojourning there spend their time in nothing else but to tell or to hear some new thing.” Even the foreigners caught the flame. That intense desire to know, that burning curiosity about everything in the world—they could not come into daily contact with it and not be fired."
It seems clear to me that Shakespeare more than other writers defined what it means to be a great writer in the English language. It’s not that he necessarily had “more” “inherent talent” than others (whatever that is and as if it could be a totally ordered quantifiable feature). It’s that English is not just the words in the dictionary but the idioms and structures that are built around them. Maybe in Elizabethan England Shakespeare was not the best English writer of all time. But in 2023 it’s difficult to argue he’s not, because 2023 English is a different entity than 1600 English and what is what “good” means in 2023 is so reliant on Shakespeare’s corpus.
SBF just has such a reductionist attitude that things can be mapped to Numbers That Can Be Compared and Situations Where Bayes’ Theorem Gives Insight. But numbers and math are only ever models of certain aspects of the world, not the world itself, and he proves by making such a fool of himself that you can’t cram every real-life round situation into your preferred square model.
Great article. I hasten to add a point which you flirted with toward the beginning: in a traditional utilitarian assessment of aesthetics, alla John Stuart Mill, we defer to people who have experienced the pleasure of something as the best guides as to its quality. It's an odd bias to reason from priors about things that have been a posteriori experienced by millions.
Hence, the Caesarean conspirators' mimesis. I don't know what this conspiracy is about, but good men are in on it, so I want in too.
This applies to the Bard of Avon Conspiracy as much as anything. The Bard is great and we experience him thus. If someone hasn't digested the plays of Shakespeare and pronounces that the reason the food is consumed is not because of its innate deliciousness and nourishing qualia, they are like teachers of physics who can't do math, capable of discussing everything except the thing under discussion.