Where is it written "I am the bard thy god, thou shalt have no other bards before me"? Shakespeare is one of England's, Europe's, the world's greatest writers. If you asked me to name the best play of 1596, I would say, without hesitation, A Midsummer Night's Dream; the best of 1597 would be Henry IV, Part One; the best of 1600, Hamlet. But these confessions would not satisfy the jealous guardians of the cult of Shakespeare. Lovers of classical music can prefer Mozart, or fancy Beethoven; a predilection for Handel is not necessarily perverse. But in the world of English literature, everyone's supposed to swear undying allegiance to the One True Bard.
Why? Shakespeare's widely proclaimed Global Aesthetic Supremacy (gas) disappears if you actually try pinning it to anything specific. Shakespeare was undoubtedly London's dominant playwright from 1594 to 1600. But he did not write the best play in any of the years before Christopher Marlowe was murdered. There's nothing in Shakespeare's early work that competes with Marlowe's Tamburlaine or Doctor Faustus. And if you asked me to name the best play of 1610, I'd have to concede that Ben Jonson's The Alchemist out-classes Shakespeare's Cymbeline or The Winter's Tale. For 1613, Thomas Middleton's A Chaste Maid in Cheapside would certainly beat The Two Noble Kinsmen.
Suppose that you extend this game to include works outside the theater. From 1603, as your representative sample of the best that our civilization can produce, would you choose Othello or the first English translation of Montaigne's Essays? Most scholars and critics would agree that King Lear is the greatest play of 1605 but is it better than Don Quixote, published the same year? If you could save only one of them from the fires of oblivion, which would it be? Notice that these choices are not about "political correctness." All these writers are (like me) white males, raised as good Christians. None of these texts advocates gay marriage or women's rights. I'm looking at these texts simply as exemplary works of art, and asking you to make the "aesthetically correct" choice.
Worshippers of Shakespeare usually wriggle out of specific comparisons like this by appealing to the totality of Shakespeare's achievement, his Absolutely Incomparable Range (air). True, Shakespeare wrote masterpieces of comedy, history, tragedy and lyric poetry. Only an exceptionally capacious talent could have composed Romeo and Juliet within 12 months of A Midsummer Night's Dream. But was Shakespeare the world's only literary switch-hitter? You don't have to have read the 425 surviving plays of Lope de Vega to question such claims. Shakespeare isn't even unique in modern English.
Most specialists in Renaissance drama now agree that Thomas Middleton wrote masterpieces of comedy (The Roaring Girl, A Chaste Maid in Cheapside) and tragedy (The Revenger's Tragedy, The Changeling, Women Beware Women). His history play, A Game at Chess, was the greatest box-office hit of the period. Middleton also wrote successful masques and indoor entertainments, and the most ambitious dramatic pageant of the period (The Triumphs of Truth). He wrote political and theological nonfiction. He wrote experimental literary works that we call "pamphlets," because they mix prose and verse, and don't fit our conventional generic labels at all works like The Black Book (where an exuberant Satan comes up to London to help out a starving writer) and The Owl's Almanac (where a learned female owl makes satirical predictions about the coming year). There's at least as much variety in Middleton as in Shakespeare.
So why do comparisons like this irritate or infuriate Shakespearian fundamentalists? Arguing with the Shakespeare industry is like trying to reason with the Inquisition. They know you're wrong before you open your mouth. It's easy to see why Shakespeare attracts so many intolerant fans (who believe that the world is too small to support more than one great artist). Shakespeare is the poet laureate of zero-sum games. His romantic plays dramatize the winning (or losing) of one true love; his political plays dramatize the struggle to become the one true king. He revels in superlative hyperboles ("the most unkindest cut of all") and in stark binary choices ("To be or not to be"). One of his most idiosyncratic tricks of style is to declare that something can be compared only with itself ("Then should the warlike Harry, like himself ..."). He loves proper names so much that his protagonists often speak of themselves in the third person. His favorite word is the singular definite article "the," as in The Tempest as though there were only ever one tempest. Middleton's favorite word, by contrast, is the indefinite article ("a" or "an").
Zero-sum games are an unavoidable slice of life. Shakespeare is right: sometimes "one fire drives out one fire; one nail, one nail." But zero-sum games are not all that life has to offer. Nails, after all, can bind, rather than drive apart. Go to church, if you're looking for monotheism. In the temples of literature, there has always been more than one god, and the only true faith is polybardolatry.