This week, an infographic by designer and data scientist Matt Daniels has been making the rounds, ranking the number of unique words used by various hip-hop artists compared to the plays of William Shakespeare, as well as Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. It’s a fun little study that doesn’t claim to do much other than quantify and contextualize the vocabularies of significant rappers alongside two titans of the Western literary canon. This did not, however, prevent it from raising the hackles of Internet elitists (see, I’m not calling them racists) on the comments section and Facebook post for The Atlantic’s blog discussing the piece. Apparently, the plebeian likes of Ghostface Killah and Kool Keith–both of whom, I should add, have apparently employed more unique words than the Bard–don’t deserve to be placed anywhere near the lofty heights of Shakespeare, who after all invented human nature as we know it.
I know, I know, getting mad at Internet commenters for being hateful and pretentious is like shaking one’s fist at the wind for blowing–and, to be fair, I will note that the comments on the Atlantic blog proper are a lot more well-reasoned and generous than the ones on social media (yeah, go figure). But there’s something disheartening about seeing this evidence of hip-hop’s lack of acceptance in mainstream intellectual culture in 2014, especially from a readership of mainly college-educated liberals who would otherwise be all too proud of their open-mindedness and highly cultivated, eclectic tastes. And it’s disheartening especially because, when one looks past the cultural baggage, Shakespeare has a whole hell of a lot more in common with hip-hop culture than he has with “high culture.”
Though there has of course been plenty of intellectual wrangling on the subject in the last century and a half, the definition of “high culture” we’re still fundamentally stuck with was advanced most famously by poet/essayist (/inveterate snob) Matthew Arnold in his 1869 essay collection Culture and Anarchy. Culture, Arnold writes, should be “a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world, and, through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits” (viii). An Arnoldian view of culture, in other words, is one of moral uplift: a means “to make all live in an atmosphere of sweetness and light” (49). It is a deeply conservative, and–despite Arnold’s protestations to the contrary–deeply classist view. In particular, it is a deeply middle-class view: “The great men of culture,” Arnold writes, “are those who have had a passion for diffusing, for making prevail, for carrying from one end of society to the other, the best knowledge, the best ideas of their time; who have laboured to divest knowledge of all that was harsh, uncouth, difficult, abstract, professional, exclusive; to humanise it, to make it efficient outside the clique of the cultivated and learned, yet still remaining the best knowledge and thought of the time, and a true source, therefore, of sweetness and light” (49). The values Arnold espouses are not universal–though he certainly wants us to think they are–but are instead inseparable from the emerging bourgeois consciousness of the 19th century and beyond, with its self-conscious aspirations of distinction and disdain for all things “vulgar” and “low.”
So what does this have to do with hip-hop, or Shakespeare for that matter? Well, clearly, Arnold would not be a fan of a musical genre as avowedly “harsh” and “uncouth” as hip-hop. But, while he was certainly a devotee of the Bard in his own lifetime, I also struggle to see how he could reconcile his notions of “sweetness and light” with the work of Shakespeare as it was presented in the 16th century. Of course, Shakespeare’s plays and poetry are both beautifully written and filled with emotional and psychological complexity–no one is disputing that. But they were also populist works, written and performed for populist tastes. His tragedies wallow in brutal and gory violence, from Macbeth’s onstage beheading (complete with pig’s blood) to the infamous scene in Titus Andronicus where Tamora unknowingly eats her own sons, who Titus has murdered and baked into a pie (incidentally, Shakespeare also has a lot in common with South Park). His comedies and sonnets are filled with ribald double entendres: what do you think Benedick means in Much Ado About Nothing when he tells Beatrice that he will “die in her lap?” In the immortal words of pop-rapper and Elizabethan scholar Christopher “Play” Martin, “you mean my man Shakespeare was talkin’ about poppin’ in some girl’s coochie?”
The point here is that Shakespeare as we know him–the pinnacle of English literary expression, the immortal purveyor of “the best that has been thought and said in the world,” the Inventor of the Human–is a relatively recent invention, a construct meant chiefly to prop up cultural hierarchies and serve the interests of British imperialism. Though William Shakespeare died in 1616, he wasn’t really “Shakespeare” until the late 18th century, when critics like Samuel Johnson fully enshrined him as a poet of “universal” excellence. As Johnson wrote in his 1765 introduction to The Plays of William Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s drama should be praised as “the mirrour of life: that he who has mazed his imagination, in following the phantoms which other writers raise up before him, may here be cured of his delirious extasies, by reading human sentiments in human language.” The irony is that this very praise, which continues to be employed by highbrow scholars like Bloom and elitists of all stripes as evidence of Shakespeare’s enduring greatness, also manages to draw him closer to the rabble. What, after all, has hip-hop ever claimed to be, if not a “mirror of (street) life?”
Shakespeare was certainly a genius. But he was also a shameless thief–or perhaps we might say “remixer”–of existing stories; a writer who valued passion and expression over linguistic rules, whose manuscripts were riddled with spelling variances and neologisms that we might today call “slang”; a dramatist not of moral uplift, “sweetness and light,” but of sex, murder, vengeance, and o’erweening ambition, otherwise known as “gangsta shit.” In other words, Shakespeare was pretty damn close to a rapper: an argument eloquently made by London grime artist Akala in his 2011 TEDx talk, “Hip-Hop & Shakespeare?” (embedded above). Of course, all of the idiosyncrasies listed above have become part of the Shakespeare legend, used as further proof of his peerless genius: when rappers are creative with the English language, they’re perverting it, while Shakespeare was simply inventing it. But that has a lot more to do with cultural hierarchy, the politics of the canon, and quite frankly, racism (I had to say it eventually), than it has to do with any innate superiority to hip-hop.
Look, if you don’t think Wu-Tang Clan deserves to be compared to Shakespeare, that’s fine. I don’t think Wu-Tang Clan should be compared to Alfred, Lord Tennyson (because the Wu would stomp all over that bitch). But to argue that the comparison is absurd simply because one is a hip-hop crew and one is Shakespeare is both elitist and ahistorical. Besides, when we construct and perpetuate these cultural hierarchies, we should be careful what we wish for: 400 years from now, in the middle of Brownsville (the Stratford-upon-Avon of Brooklyn), there just might be a marble bust of the RZA. I wonder who will be unworthy of comparison to him then.