Though there were courtly productions of Shakespeare, most of the early performances of his work would have had more in common with a Warner Brothers cinema performance or an upmarket rock concert than with the solemnities of the National Theatre.
In Dickens's time, intellectuals such as Thomas Carlyle thought that the author was squandering his talents in writing novels, which had little prestige because they were so easy to enjoy. Dickens had many illiterate admirers, who heard the novels read out loud. The perceived vulgarity of the novel, indeed, was such that, not much earlier, Wordsworth and De Quincey could scarcely bring themselves to read Jane Austen, because her books seemed to them to be so unimproving and banal.
Something of this feeling persisted as late as the Thirties, when George Orwell, who had, after all, written a number of novels himself, warned his housekeeper not to read too many of them, for fear of spoiling her mind.
These days, much of the prestige attached to novels results from the fact that relatively few people read them. When a novel is read by too many people it is apt to get reclassified as airport fiction. For much of its history, the act of admiring "the novel" per se would have seemed about as odd, perhaps, as admiring soap operas does to most intellectuals now.
The screenplay is still a less respectable literary form than the stage play, the lyric poem or the essay. But most respectable forms - even the epic poem - were once pretty ordinary. Thus, the modern lyric poem is as closely related to the lyrics of popular songs as the dog is to the wolf. Lyrics were originally written for musical accompaniment on a lyre. A poem by Seamus Heaney finds a substitute for this external accompaniment in the music of its metres. A song by Joni Mitchell (for example) reads less well because its organising accompaniment is still externally provided by music proper. But it is the same kind of thing.
A still closer relation exists between the essay as practised by Dr Johnson and Hazlitt, and as "essayed" by thousands of newspaper columnists every day. And it may be that the reluctance of theatre-lovers to admit the decline of the stage play is owed, in part, to the popularity of its offshoot, the screenplay. Why else is it commonly said that if Shakespeare were alive now he'd be writing for TV? If he were, it's pretty certain he'd lose in highbrow approval what he'd regain in popular esteem.
When a work has been admired for a long time, it does not merely acquire a patina of respectability. More important, because it has given pleasure, enlightenment and comfort, it gets plaited into the affections of its admirers. This is why it is difficult to see the relations between things of the same kind that are widely separated in time - or even between past and present attitudes to the same thing. Who would think, given the reverence traditionally accorded to the Authorised Version of the Bible (1611) that, in its own time, it was widely considered to be stylistically crude? We can't easily imagine this, because time has concurrently enriched our appreciation of "biblical" English, and dulled our sensitivity to what were once considered its more vulgar nuances. Probably we'd have a different feeling about Homer if we could hear the living tang of all the varieties of ancient Greek at work in the Iliad and the Odyssey.
But the fact that these works ever became popular reminds us that the main disparagers of popular art forms tend to be intellectuals. It seems likely that their own exertions over formerly popular art dispose many of them to suspect that art that is currently easy to enjoy cannot be any good. Of course, it doesn't follow that popularity is an index of importance, or that the canon of Brookside is commensurate with the canon of Shakespeare. But artistic popularity that lasts, until such time as it shades off into respect, remains the most reliable criterion of artistic merit that we have.
Homer, Shakespeare and Dickens are still valued, because they are rich in meaningful counterparts to the experience of those who enjoy them. The currency of phrases, concepts and characters from such writers is a measure of how far they have supplied people with a vicarious means of interpreting themselves.
TS Eliot praised Sherlock Holmes as one of the great dramatic creations of English literature. It is a comparable, if lesser, triumph of dramatic art that millions of people, irrespective of class, have some idea of what is suggested by the names "Barry Grant" and "Elsie Tanner".
We interpret our experience largely by talking or writing about it. The purpose of discussing works of art is to provide a means of comparing different people's experience of the world. A group of Elizabethans watch a Shakespeare play, or a modern family watch the EastEnders omnibus. The reactions within each group exhibit both similarities and differences. Discussion of the similarities confirms the sense of a shared human nature; discussion of the differences confirms a sense of individual peculiarities.
The balance between the two points of view is a powerful influence on the individual's view of reality - or of where your world or mine overlaps with everyone else's.
Something similar happens when people gossip. What makes works of art special, however, is that: a) they are legitimately open to public discussion and debate; and b) they exploit the most expressive resources of artistic form, so as to offer enlightening distortions of reality.
The most popular works produce a feeling of enlightenment with minimal distortion. But, as time goes on, the distortions (or conventions) that gave the feeling of enlightenment become more visible. When soaps are as difficult for people to enjoy as Charlie Chaplin films, let alone the works of Shakespeare, they will probably start to be taken seriously. For now, it is perhaps enough that they should be popular, and so remind us of what a shared artistic culture really feels like.
Stephen Logan is the director of studies in English at St Edmund's College, University of CambridgeReuse content