The Salieri question

A friend and I were talking about Shakespeare. I’m a fan, he’s not. He was wondering aloud whether the hyper around the Bard could ever be tested objectively. “Maybe,” he said, “people only like Shakespeare because they know it’s Shakespeare. I wonder whether they’d still like the plays if they’d never heard of him.”

I pointed out that Shakespeare had a number of contemporaries who wrote on many of the same themes, in the same iambic pentameter, with all the same conventions. And yet we don’t watch many of their plays. Just as we don’t listen to all that much music by J.S. Bach’s contemporaries. Maybe, I posited, Shakespeare was just so good that his work transcends its own time.

“Too bad,” my friend said, “that there’s no way to test that hypothesis.”

“Christopher Marlowe was a contemporary of Shakespeare,” I told him. “Do you think you would know whether you’re watching a play by Shakespeare or by Marlowe?”

“No,” he replied, “I don’t think I’ve seen enough Shakespeare that I would know which was which.”

“I’m guessing,” I said, “that most people would be in the same boat as you. So I think you’d have a sample to work with.”

My friend perked right up. “Yes,” he said, “I think we could get enough people to do a proper blind comparison.”

I was glad to hear that we had a plan. I wonder how it will turn out. Maybe next we can try the same thing with Mozart and Salieri.

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