Samuel Pepys on Shakespeare: ‘insipid’, ‘ridiculous’, ‘silly’

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In the nine years covered by his diary Samuel Pepys saw nearly 350 performances. But what did he think of the Great Bard? Guest blogger Alex Marshall finds out.

Alex Marshall - Book Slam
Alex Marshall is one of our speakers at Book Slam
At the end of this month, Will Self, the comedian Felicity Ward, the Chaps Choir and I are going to be at a special Book Slam at the National Maritime Museum “bringing Pepys to life for a new generation”.
You should really buy a ticket now if you haven’t already. Seriously. I mean, just look at that line up!
You can read what I’m going to be talking about on this blog next week, but since I recently re-read Pepys diaries, I wanted to share with you one thing that took me by surprise in them: that Pepys as well as being everything we know him for – the diarist, the philanderer, the great chronicler of London – was also the greatest theatre-critic that never was, a man who could pan a play in a sentence better than most manage in a thousand.
Samuel Pepys at the National Maritime Museum
Samuel Pepys, 1633-1703
So since this year is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, let me quickly present to you Pepy’s take on the great bard. If you’re a descendent of Shakespeare, perhaps best to stop reading.
“Saw Midsummer Night's Dream which I have never seen before, nor shall ever again, for it is the most insipid, ridiculous play that I ever saw in my life. There was, I confess, some good dancing and some handsome women, but that was all of my pleasure.” (29 September 1662)
“Saw Twelfth Night acted well, though it be but a silly play and not relating at all to the name or day" (6 January 1663)
“Though I went with the resolution to like [Henry VIII], it’s so simple a thing, made up of a great many patches…that there is nothing in the work.” (1 January 1664)
William Shakespeare
What would Shakespeare have thought of Pepys?
Are there any of Shakespeare’s plays he does like? Well he reads Othello on a boat and calls it “a mean thing”, which I suppose is a sort of compliment. He also goes to see Henry V once and doesn’t have anything bad to say about it, although that’s largely because he’s “so high and far off” he can’t hear what anyone says. 
The only play he does like unconditionally in fact is Macbeth, “a most excellent play in all respects, especially divertissement.” He loves it so much he sees it repeatedly throughout the nine years of his diary. It’s just a shame he never says anything funny about it.
What would Pepys say about the forthcoming Book Slam? God knows, but I’m sure he'd think it was a night of divertissement just as good as any seventeenth century Macbeth. Go and buy a ticket now.