When a person refers to classic sculpture or architecture, you automatically assume it is the style derived from classic Greek art, the style of art associated with a small Mediterranean 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 that led to their 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, who adopted this artistic style and spread it through his conquests to lands of other more ancient empires. When the Romans took over this vast area ruled by the descendants of his Greek generals, they were too busy building roads and outposts to maintain a huge empire to come up with a unique artistic style.
Fast forward several hundred years and you have Europeans during the renaissance rediscovering this “classic” style. But the renaissance wasn’t just about architecture and sculpture. It was also about literature, a period in which creativity would bloom in writing. So what makes classic literature 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 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 Shakespeare’s esteem by the other actors who contributed to getting his work published.
What seems to contribute the most to being considered a classic is the fact that the work was produced in nation that was a growing political power. It helped that Shakespeare started writing in the Elizabethan period, the dawn of Britain as an empire. It seems as if the ego of the nation is as important as the worth of individual work when identifying creative periods in art and literature.