Why is Shakespeare so Important? April 23 2016
How could Shakespeare possibly be relevant today? His death was 400 years ago and since then it is not just how we experience theatre that has changed radically - alas no throwing rotten vegetables or heckling the actors nowadays - but society too has been transformed. We communicate electronically via text, email and apps and sometimes not even using language at all but emojis to show how we feel. We may go to the cinema to see a West End play screened or see British plays performed as we travel around the world by other cultures in different languages or adapted for film into a Hollywood blockbuster changed in terms of character, language and location to appeal to a new demographic. Women are not only allowed to play female roles in the theatre, but now even take men's parts as in the recent all female 'Hamlet'; they can also win literary prizes, run publishing houses and even be heads of state. Thus ignore Shakespeare at your peril. It may be a fast changing world, but it is not only one he helped to create but subject the steadfast nature of the human condition to forensic analysis, which becomes more pertinent in our self-obsessed global village of the 21st century. So here are our key reasons why we should all remember the bard.
1) He invokes a sense of wonder, the possibility of what we could do. Before I could read, I just looked at the text of Shakespeare's plays in awe of how one person could write page after page of blank verse. How was it possible that one person had the capability to do that? What was the trick? The more you understand the plays, you realise it is not just the blank verse that is an art form: the extensive vocabulary, imagery, humour, plot, character development and social commentary, all show an intelligence that is 'the stuff that dreams are made of'. Read Shakespeare, have faith in your own ability and be inspired to achieve great things too.
2) He gives us the words to create our own worlds - approximately 2000. Shakespeare has created many words and phrases that we use today such as fashionable, gloomy, sanctimonious, soft-hearted, bubble, 'all that glisters is not gold' (Merchant of Venice), 'cruel only to be kind' (Hamlet), 'in a pickle' (The Tempest) and 'pure as the driven snow' (A Winter's Tale). Even though he had a huge vocabulary (using approximately 15,000 words in his plays), Shakespeare was the master of neologisms and compound words to express new meanings. His sharp word play may sometimes be lost on an audience that struggles with early modern English but he has also created some of the most memorable lines that sum up a situation succinctly. He also shows the power of language to persuade us to commit good and evil acts as well as insult: 'Thou cream-faced loon' (Macbeth). The love-struck Othello kills his wife due to a jealousy created by insinuation, action and the absence of language as Desdemona fails to say crucial lines that would have saved her life. Anthony the more masterful orator is able to persuade his 'Friends, Romans and countrymen' to take revenge on Brutus for the death of Caesar. It is no wonder that politicians draw on many of Shakespeare's rhetorical devices to get their message across.
3) Shakespeare entertains, informs and provokes debate about historical events. Whether accurate or not, his plays about the War of the Roses whets the appetite of the theatre-goer to find out more about the protagonists and their role in shaping our past. One of the most recent films of Richard III made the link between a despotic king and Hitler as performed by Ian McKellen. The world's current crises show that repeatedly fail to look and learn from our past. The history plays are therefore worth a re-visit and not be surprised by the courageous ones amongst us who aspire to greatness whilst being wary of the Machiavellian who plays the 'smiling damned villain' capable of appalling atrocities in their unquenching thirst for power. Even plays such as 'Romeo and Juliet' show us the tragedy that can occur when animosity is allowed to fester, escalate and be re-enacted by the next generation.
4) Shakespeare holds a mirror up to us all to show how we are flawed. In an age obsessed with presenting the perfect selfie, the exciting Facebook page and the cosmetically enhanced image, Shakespeare never wrote a truer line when he stated that 'all the world is a stage and we are the many players' as we create our theatrical selves for others to see and admire. Class is also seen as no indication of intelligence or morality. In 'Much Ado About Nothing' it is the bumbling Dogberry not the potentially wise Leonato who uncovers the wrong-doing that questions the letters daughter's integrity . Seemingly wise men and patriarchal figures whose authority we are tempted to respect in society are often proven to be otherwise as they are forced to learn hard lessons of life (King Lear).
5) Shakespeare tells us what it means to be human: to love and for it to be unrequited, to be happy, sad, suicidal, bereaved, arrogant, to act too hastily or not at all, to be betrayed, to fell isolated and to gradually slip into insanity. 'Hamlet' alone covers many of these issues as he is alone in coming to terms with the death of his father, knowing that his uncle Claudius has killed him and must act to avenge the death but procrastinates instead, finally causing a worse tragedy to occur. He feels betrayed by his mother who has married Claudius and 'doth protest too much', contemplates thoughts of death (to die, to sleep...') and contributes to the madness and death of Ophelia who loves but is let down appallingly by Hamlet - killing her father just being one instance of his betrayal. We know from Shakespeare what it is like to be young and so madly in love with someone that you are prepared to risk your own life in order to go against your parent's wishes and be with a hot-headed youth who is in trouble with the law. (Romeo and Juliet). We empathise with the teenage protagonists and their angst rather than condemn them. If you want to know what it feels like to truly love someone regardless of gender, just take a look at the sonnets. The harsh reality of life means that the good are not always rewarded, particularly if you are a woman (Ophelia, Desdemona and Hero) and sometimes the villain escapes (Don John) and we may even find ourselves siding with them at times as in the first part of 'Richard III' - especially when performed by Kevin Spacey! We are rarely spared the guilt for their crimes: the ghosts that visit both Macbeth and Richard in tormented dreams whilst Lady Macbeth sleepwalks and tries to wash the blood from her hands. The rhythm of the plays intersperse often light with darkness which reflects the ups and downs we all experience and know.
Finally, There are many aspirational phrases for all of us to take away. Shakespeare's plays show life is far from perfect, but it also shows that human agency can make it better or worse. Hence, some of the most popular requests for quotations on our signs come from the bard. The images, ideas and sounds of the words lift the human spirit so that we aspire to be our best. The bard himself said: Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them' (Twelfth Night). Never was a truer statement said: so let's all read the texts, watch the plays. think and learn, then act to the benefit of all on our 21st century world stage.