Well, you’re certainly timely, anon! All of my grad school apps are asking me the first question, so now is a good time to sort out my thoughts on that matter.
The second question is actually a separate issue in my opinion, so I’ll answer it first. The short (but unhelpful) answer is yes, probably. I think it’s fair to say that as a whole, the works of white men in English literature have been systematically emphasized and elevated so that our picture of what constitutes the important, influential canon is skewed. Shakespeare has undeniably benefited from that bias.
As dead white men go, though, I’d argue that Shakespeare’s about as deserving as you get. Obviously, his works are enduring—it’s not simply the academic community that’s obsessed with them. They persist in theater, in popular culture. They’ve helped shape our language to an astonishing degree (I’m sure you’ve seen the quoting Shakespeare poster, and that’s just phrases he coined, let alone popularized). Plenty of people more educated and intelligent than I have attempted to understand why exactly this is, so I won’t hazard a guess, but the mere fact of it speaks to something special, I think.
I will not argue with the contention that Shakespeare is idolized and placed on a pedestal to often absurd degrees—in fact, I think this is one of the major problems in Shakespeare criticism. There’s a lot of elitist, often classist bullshit that accompanies praise of him, to the point where Oxfordians and other conspiracy theorists actually believe he didn’t write his own plays because such works couldn’t possibly have been created by anyone middle-class. That’s fucked up! People have also tried to oust one of my favorite plays, Titus Andronicus, from the canon simply because it’s bloody and disturbing and awful and they can’t contemplate their ~pure pristine genius~ writing such a thing.
So no, I don’t believe Shakespeare was the ~pure pristine genius~ much criticism makes him out to be.
But he was a genius.
The man was so adept with words that hundreds of years later we’re still finding puns. Whole scenes can turn on a change of pronoun. He was an excellent dramatist, and his best plays are structurally almost flawless (which is not to say he didn’t write structurally bad plays). He was a master of marrying form and content—that is to say that the minutia of his writing often reflects the larger themes. I’ll give you a couple examples my Shakespeare prof used to demonstrate. 1) There’s a moment in As You Like It when Celia is arguing that Rosalind’s banishment deeply affects them both, and she says “Rosalind lacks then the love/Which teacheth thee that thou and I am one.” The emphasis is mine, because I cannot stress enough that she breaks grammatical rules—using a singular verb form for two people—in order to reinforce the statement that they’re a singular entity. 2) Once, a test question I had to answer was “what play are all these phrases from, and how can you tell?” The list was HUGE and intimidating and they were all only two words, without any context. So what was the trick? They were all oxymorons (bright smoke, cold fire, sick health, etc.), and you could thus infer that they were from the play that’s all about oppositions drawn together: Romeo and Juliet. Even on such a small scale, the language mirrors the larger concerns of the play!!! That is so fucking cool.
This is sort of seguing into why I love Shakespeare, which is a little bit harder to explain. What it boils down to is that I love Shakespeare because he speaks to me. I find his characters compelling, his poetry transcendentally beautiful. Even reading aloud Richard II’s ”Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs” soliloquy usually brings me to tears. I find his writing by turns funny, horrifying, profound, heartrending, joyous, filthy, inspiring, and endlessly intelligent. I’ve seen many of his plays in production and they have the power to move me—I’ve walked out of a theater bouncing with glee and smiling from ear to ear, just as I’ve risen for applause only to find that my knees are weak and my whole body shaking (no, really, I’ve had this experience).
Do I think you have to personally enjoy Shakespeare? No. I might be sad about it if you don’t, but I’m not going to say that you lack taste or wit or education. It’s not everyone’s thing. But it is my thing, on intellectual and emotional levels. There are lines I don’t think I’ll ever be able to hear without being affected by them (“How can you say to me, I am a king?” “Think you in your soul the Count Claudio hath wronged Hero?” “Sorrow concealed, like an oven stopped/Doth burn the heart to cinders where it is”), and I would be perfectly happy to immerse myself in these texts doing pointless minute analysis for the rest of my life.
God, I don’t know if I’ve even remotely begun to answer your question, but this is what I have. I find a beauty, an elegance and depth in Shakespeare’s writing that continues to astonish me even after years of study. That’s why I love him.