The sometimes surprising things said about him
Despite his current reputation as the greatest writer in the English language, perhaps in any language, William Shakespeare has also had his critics—both in earlier and in modern times. Here's a selection of quotations from prominent figures with varying assessments of the Bard's work.
He was not of an age, but for all time!
Ben Jonson, First Folio of Shakespeare's collected works, 1623
He was the man who of all modern, and perhaps ancient poets had the largest and most comprehensive soul.
John Dryden, "Essay of Dramatic Poesy", 1668
One of the greatest geniuses that ever existed, Shakespeare, undoubtedly wanted taste.
Horace Walpole, letter, 1764
Shakespeare’s fault is not the greatest into which a poet may fall. It merely indicates a deficiency of taste.
Denis Diderot, "On Dramatic Poetry", 1758
He was a savage...who had some imagination. He has written many happy lines; but his pieces can please only at London and in Canada. It is not a good sign for the taste of a nation when that which it admires meets with favor only at home.
Francois-Marie Arouet Voltaire, letter, 1765
Shakespeare is a savage with sparks of genius which shine in a horrible night.
Francois-Marie Arouet Voltaire, letter, 1776
Shakespeare never had six lines together without a fault. Perhaps you may find seven, but this does not refute my general assertion.
Samuel Johnson, Life of Johnson (James Boswell), 1769
Shakespeare’s name, you may depend on it, stands absurdly too high and will go down.
George Gordon Noel Byron, letter, 1814
I have great reason to be content, for thank God I can read, and perhaps understand Shakespeare to his depths....
John Keats, letter, 1818
If I say therefore, that Shakspeare is the greatest of Intellects, I have said all concerning him. But there is more in Shakspeare’s intellect than we have yet seen. It is what I call an unconscious intellect; there is more virtue in it than he himself is aware of.... Shakspeare’s Art is not Artifice; the noblest worth of it is not there by plan or precontrivance. It grows-up from the deeps of Nature, through this noble sincere soul, who is a voice of Nature.
Thomas Carlyle, On Heroes and Hero-Worship, 1841
I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me.
With the single exception of Homer, there is no eminent writer, not even Sir Walter Scott, whom I can despise so entirely as I despise Shakespeare when I measure my mind against his.... It would positively be a relief to me to dig him up and throw stones at him.
George Bernard Shaw, Dramatic Opinions and Essays, 1907
Shakespeare is the happy hunting ground of all minds that have lost their balance.
We can say of Shakespeare, that never has a man turned so little knowledge to such great account.
T.S. Eliot, lecture
The remarkable thing about Shakespeare is that he is really very good—in spite of all the people who say he is very good.
Robert Graves, The Observer, "Sayings of the Week", 1964
Shakespeare—whetting, frustrating, surprising and gratifying.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Crack-Up, 1945
(He) has become a black hole. Light, insight, intelligence, matter — all pour ceaselessly into him, as critics are drawn into the densening vortex of his reputation; they add their own weight to his increasing mass. The light from other stars — other poets, other dramatists — is wrenched and bent as it passes by him on its way to us. He warps cultural space-time; he distorts our view of the universe around him.... But Shakespeare himself no longer transmits visible light; his stellar energies have been trapped within the gravity well of his own reputation. We find in Shakespeare only what we bring to him or what others have left behind; he gives us back our own values.
Gary Taylor, Reinventing Shakespeare, 1989
(The) Shakespearean cast of thought (is) a fine credulity about everything, kept in check by a lively skepticism about everything.
Robertson Davies, Murther and Walking Spirits, 1991
When I read Shakespeare I am struck with wonder
That such trivial people should muse and thunder
In such lovely language.
D.H. Lawrence, When I Read Shakespeare
Shakespeare was the great one before us. His place was between God and despair.
Eugène Ionesco, interview International Herald Tribune, 1988
I could say that Shakespeare surpasses literature altogether, if I knew what I meant.
Virginia Woolf, diary entry, 1930