I believe that the American love for Shakespeare can be summed up in the words of an anonymous cowboy.
The historian Philip Ashton Rollins, in his post-Civil War work about life on the range, visited a ranch where the cowboys who could read would sometimes perform speeches for those who could not. After a rousing rendition of Mark Antony’s “Dogs of War” speech from Julius Caesar, Rollins heard a young cowboy cried out: “Gosh! That fellow Shakespeare could sure spill the real stuff. He’s the only poet I ever seen what fed on raw meat.”
There’s an occasional column in the newspaper I read daily about bad TV called “We Watch So You Don’t Have To.” I read How to Do Things With Pornography so you don’t have to. What’s most interesting about it is not the book itself, which is a patchwork of largely technical academic philosophy pieces, very few of which are actually about porn. But inside this book is a more interesting one trying to get out, the way Michelangelo’s “Slaves” are seen as spirit struggling to emerge from brute matter, muscular men straining against unfinished blocks of marble.
In 2003, after a long-running poll, the BBC announced that readers considered The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien’s three-volume fantasy tale, the greatest British novel of all time—a result wonderful to report, probably accurate about contemporary readers’ taste, and entirely absurd. Anyone who doesn’t love Tolkien isn’t much of a reader. But, then, neither is anyone who thinks The Lord of the Rings the greatest novel ever written.
In an art form so wide-ranging that it includes everything from the works of Jane Austen to the books of Fyodor Dostoyevsky—from David Copperfield to Naked Lunch, Madame Bovary to The Stranger—Tolkien has to rank somewhere.