Are certain pleasures in life intrinsically more valuable than others? Is the person who derives pleasure from watching Coronation Street (a British soap opera) but finds nothing which speaks to him in Shakespeare correct when he voices his opinion that soaps possess greater value for him than the Bard’s work due to Coronation Street arousing feelings of enjoyment not aroused by Shakespeare?
Yesterday evening, on the way home from the office I popped into my favourite pub for a pint or two. While there I fell into conversation with an acquaintance. Our discussion ranged far and wide. At one point during our conversation my acquaintance voiced the opinion that a child’s drawing may possess more value than works of art hanging in art galleries and on the walls of rich collectors. Let us leave aside whether the child in question is a budding artist with great talent and assume instead that his picture is a mere scrawl or a mediocre drawing. In such an instance the picture may (and often is) greatly treasured by the child’s parents as being a product of their son or daughter’s artistic efforts. Those unacquainted with the girl or boy in question may not give his creation a second glance but to the loving parents it possesses sentimental importance (they may keep the drawing for years taking it out of a drawer to look at from time to time).
The love of a parent for their children is a precious and beautiful thing, however we can not allow a parents biased view of their child’s talents to determine what constitutes great art. We would not, for example permit the parents of one child to judge the creations of children unrelated to them if the competition included pictures produced by the judge’s own children! The judge might be able to put aside his natural desire to favour his child but even so we would, quite rightly determine that it was inappropriate for him to sit in judgement in a competition featuring pictures produced by his offspring.
Let us broaden the debate and return to the person who obtains greater pleasure from watching soap operas than he derives from Shakespeare. We may disagree with the lover of soap operas and contend (as I do) that Shakespeare is more valuable in that his works portray humanity in all it’s rich diversity, however we can not argue against the fact that for the given individual Coronation Street possesses more value than the works of the bard. However while accepting that the lover of soap operas holds the subjective opinion that Coronation Street is more valuable than Shakespeare we can, by standing back and taking the broader perspective vigorously defend the concept of great art and literature.
Shakespeare’s plays have remained popular since they where first performed in Elizabethan times. The issues addressed by Shakespeare remain as relevant today as when the plays where first written. For example take Macbeth’s musings on ambition
“I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself,
And falls on th’other.”
Many a despot has been driven and continues to be propelled by “vaulting ambition”. Wonderful writing which can not be compared to the happenings in Coranation Street. Again Hamlet’s “To be or not to be, that is the question” soliloquy is arguably one of the greatest meditations on the subject of suicide ever written:
To be, or not “to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The Heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to? ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; Aye, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes Calamity of so long life:
For who would bear the Whips and Scorns of time,
The Oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s Contumely,
The pangs of despised Love, the Law’s delay,
The insolence of Office, and the Spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his Quietus make
With a bare Bodkin? Who would Fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered Country, from whose bourn
No Traveller returns, Puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of.
Thus Conscience does make Cowards of us all,
And thus the Native hue of Resolution
Is sicklied o’er, with the pale cast of Thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment,
With this regard their Currents turn awry,
And lose the name of Action.”
Doubtless in future centuries historians will study soap operas to understand popular culture and some will continue to find such soaps entertaining, however it will be Shakespeare and Dickens who retain their positions centre stage not soap operas or mindless “reality” shows in which the boyfriend of a girl who has slept with his (the boy’s father) shouts insults at his partner for the entertainment of the studio audience and the viewer. We no longer have the spectacle of hapless victims being thrown to the lions. It has been replaced by ill educated people who want their paltry 5 minutes of fame strutting and threating their hour upon the stage and, once over to be heard from no more. This is entertainment of a sort but it is not great art or literature, perish the thought.