Four Hundred and Fifty-Seven (457!) years after he was born, Shakespeare continues to be one of the most recognisable names in English literature. That’s almost 500 years, and Shakespeare’s plays and poems still get printed, read, analysed, taught and revered. If you think that’s insane, well, you’re probably right. It kind of is. After all, how did this one playwright, out of all his contemporaries at the time, achieve this level of eternal success?
In a world where the publishing industry is slowly dying, new releases barely last weeks on book store shelves, and people are reading less and less, how is Shakespeare still around? In the four centuries since Shakespeare, we’ve seen countless plays, novels, and poems being written in English, and yet, no other writer seems to have been immortalised quite like Shakespeare.
It’s only natural to wonder why. What is so special about Shakespeare that he not only became but remains the single most influential figure in English literature? Especially when his plays are becoming more and more difficult for modern audiences to read? In this article, I’m going to break down all the potential reasons for Shakespeare enjoying posthumous fame he would never have imagined for himself.
Hell is empty, and all the devils are here – Shakespeare’s plays and the Human condition.
If you’ve ever been brave enough to ask your English teacher why we’re still studying Shakespeare, they probably said it’s because his stories are timeless. What does timeless even mean, anyway? Well, the way I understand it, they’re talking about how Shakespeare’s characters and themes continue to be relatable 400 years after their creation.
The tragic, but passionate romance between Romeo and Juliet, for example, is a classic that has more than survived the test of time. So much so that “Romeo and Juliet” has become synonymous with lovers by now. The story’s longevity is because the theme it explores – love, is so universal. Romeo and Juliet’s love for each other was so intense and all-consuming that they killed each other when they thought the other was dead. Meanwhile, they were driven to their tragic fates because of the hatred around them, which is the opposite end of the spectrum. The feud between their families and the social stigma is still kind of relatable in the way in which it feels like the whole world is against you when you’re in love.
Hamlet is a reminder of what happens when you let indecision run your life. Macbeth is a lesson in the cost of greed and forgetting one’s own humanity in the pursuit of power. Othello is driven to jealously because he chooses to believe what he hears from others more than his own wife. King Lear’s naivety eventually leads him to go from a king to a destitute, lonely old man.
The body of Shakespeare’s works captures the essence of what it means to be human. Through his stories, whether tragic or comedic, audiences learn more about themselves because they see themselves in the characters. That cathartic moment when you, the audience or reader, feels everything the character is feeling is a huge part of what makes stories so powerful, and Shakespeare was an expert at this.
All the world’s a stage – Shakespeare’s plays on stage and film.
Another reason for Shakespeare’s enduring popularity is his plays are still being staged even today. Some theatre societies like the Royal Shakespeare Company are particularly responsible for retelling his plays in multiple ways. Meta commentary and re-imagined versions of Shakespeare’s plays are also immensely popular since they explore familiar stories from a unique perspective.
Not to mention, many of Shakespeare’s plays have been made into films as well and went on to receive enormous success. A part of the reason for this is since his time, Shakespeare’s plays have been referenced in so many works of literature that followed it until eventually, they became well-known archetypes in all forms of storytelling, including movies and television. For example, Cercei in Game of Thrones is heavily influenced by Lady Macbeth. These influences can be noticed even when there is no direct reference to Shakespeare. With his stories so deeply embedded in our collective consciousness, his plays aren’t going to disappear anytime soon.
Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none – Shakespeare was ‘woke’ for his time
As humanity progresses, the goal is to overcome prejudice and discrimination in human society. Whether on the basis of race, gender, religion or other factors, equality for all is still an issue we are struggling with in the 21st century. But all the way back in the 16th and 17th centuries, Shakespeare’s plays sparked conversation on many of these topics.
Shakespeare’s plays were controversial for their time. From the agency displayed by his female characters to the very inclusion of Black characters in roles other than slaves or barbarians, many of Shakespeare’s plays pushed the boundaries of what was considered socially acceptable at the time. At the time Shakespeare was writing, women were proclaimed to be the weaker sex, whose only job was to obey their husbands and pump out babies. Even his female characters had to be played by men in drag because women weren’t legally permitted to act on stage.
But Shakespeare wrote women who were just as witty, brave or lovesick as their male counterparts. For example, in Merchant of Venice, Portia is the level headed rationalist while the men are often comically emotional. Shakespeare loved to experiment with gender roles, as he did in the Twelfth night, a play that features a comical love triangle between Viola, who is dressed as a man and in love with Duke Orsino, who is in love with Countess Olivia, who is in love with Viola dressed as a man.
Othello’s namesake being a man of African descent is a huge deal for a play of that time, and the Tempest even offers some critiques of colonialism through Prospero. If you’re interested in the evolution of gender and race relations, Shakespeare is a great place to look towards.
In conclusion, Shakespeare is so well remembered for a variety of reasons. There are even more reasons for his fame, like the idioms he penned that have become common phrases today if you don’t like reading Shakespeare, good news! You don’t have to! There are plenty of abridged versions, plays and film and tv adaptations to chose from. But I hope this article helped explain why Shakespeare is still around, even 400 years later.
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