William Shakespeare is the greatest writer of all time, in any language. While this may seem like a very controversial statement, it is so only through the eyes of fragile national, ethnic and gender egos.
Objectively speaking Shakespeare’s greatness cannot be denied. Although it is popular in some circles to claim that writing is subjective, this is never true. Writing can be objectively evaluated even if the subject matter is subjective. This is so because language is actually trying to accomplish something. When we write, we take the content of our minds and hearts and share it with other people. This can be done well or ill. We can stutter, sputter, run around in circles, never saying what we intend to, or we can be clear, concise and coherent. This is not subjective.
It has become popular among modern academics to replace in their curriculums some of the greats of the Western Tradition with minority writers, female writers and multicultural writers. While I can, to an extent, appreciate this, I believe it is a mistake of the most profound order. Writing is about what has been seen, felt, thought, and experienced. A great writer is one who can, through the use of words, make another participate in what he has felt, thought, seen, or experienced. In this sense a great writer is not just one who has mastered the art of writing and the rules of grammar but one who has seen and experienced much, and intensely. I have read various feminist writers, African-American writers, Latino writers, and am currently going through a series of lectures on the Eastern Intellectual Tradition. Some of these writers are clearly fantastic, and I would label many of them as great, but when it comes to rank, I have to place Shakespeare first.
William Shakespeare is the greatest writer of all time because he says the ineffable. Where other writers are forced to throw their hands up in frustration, Shakespeare finds words. More, his range seems limitless as if he experienced the full gamut of human emotions. Shakespeare writes in such a way as to not only make us aware of what he has thought and felt but participants, as well. Through Shakespeare we feel deeper, and we think better, too. This is the reason I think William Shakespeare is the greatest writer of all time.
Finally, while ‘saying the ineffable’ may seem like an oxymoron, it stops being so the moment we read Shakespeare. We in the modern world do not have the same relationship to words that our ancestors did. For us words can be just words, empty sounds meaning nothing. This was not the case for our ancestors. For them words carried power, and were doorways to other worlds and other dimensions—which is the reason why an ancient writer could write something like “Jesus wept” and expect it make an impact, while we would probably have to write something along the lines of “rivers from his eyes streamed down his cracked, agonized face.” What has become ineffable for us is largely the result of the decay in the sensitivity to language, and would not have been ineffable to Shakespeare.