What makes a classic, a classic?

When a person refers to classic art, you automatically assume it is the style derived from classic Greek art. This style is associated with city-states on a small Greek peninsula beginning about 500 B.C. and ending 323 B.C., at the death of Alexander the Great. There are other civilizations with other classic periods, blooms in culture led to the height of artistic expression. Why do we assume that the culture is automatically Greek when it is not identified?  One clue is the ending date, the death of the Alexander the Great. Alexander was actually a Macedonian, but military empires often do not come up with their own “culture.” Rather he adopted one of a conquered region and spread it where ever his armies traveled. Having a similar language and culture makes it much easier to rule a huge empire. When the Romans took over they were too busy building roads and outposts to maintain a huge empire. They adopted Greek ways, too.

Fast forward several hundred years and you have Europeans during the Renaissance rediscovering this “classic” style spread by the Roman emperors. However, the Renaissance wasn’t just about architecture and sculpture. It was also about literature. So what makes classic literature a classic? Largely it’s acceptance by professors at major universities.  One of these, Harold Bloom of Yale University, is known for his book about books, The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages . This discussion of classic books has  become surprisingly popular, even though it is obviously biased towards English literature. Bloom credits William Shakespeare’s plays and poetry with giving rise to the style of writing that continued to inspire the great works of European literature.

Most students do not realize that Shakespeare was not an “academic,” a person who wrote for other highly educated people, but rather a producer of popular entertainment. Common people paid a small amount to go stand for hours and watch his plays just like teenagers crowd to the theater today. Also many students also do not realize that Shakespeare’s plays contain quite a bit of suggestive language. As one perceptive student said, If you don’t understand a particular phrase in a Shakespearean play, it is probably R-rated. However, the fact that his work has lasted so long is an indication of its general appeal and quality. It also an indication of how much the actors wanted to take part in his popular plays. Shakespeare remained famous when other playwrights faded from history because these actors paid to get his work published.

However, what contributed the most to Shakespeare’s work becoming “classics” was his popularity in a growing political power. It helped that Shakespeare was writing in the Elizabethan period, the dawn of  the British empire. It seems as if the power of a nation is as important to becoming a classic as the actual artistic worth of the work.

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