Shakespeare. The man who wrote the “most famous love story of all time,” “Romeo and Juliet,” about a bachelor in love with someone else and a 14-year-old betrothed to her father’s friend, who meet, secretly marry, and commit suicide to immortalize their love—all within a four-day period.
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Shakespeare. The man whose name rhymes with “fear,” rightfully so to students trying to wade through his 16th and 17th-century English. In fact, Spark Notes gives the playwright his own section of the website called “No Fear Shakespeare” that gives students modern renditions of each play that they might face in high school or college courses.
Shakespeare. The man who grew up in a small country town, the man who had little formal education, the man who died quietly in that small town with no real record of how—the man who lives on in the textbooks as the greatest writer in English history.
Four centuries after his death, Shakespeare’s legacy lives on. In fact, theaters from the local level to Broadway frequently use Shakespearean plays for their performances. Hollywood honors him regularly. As recently as 2013, director Carlo Carlei released a film version of “Romeo and Juliet.” This year, Broadway put on a double production of “Richard III” and “Twelfth Night.”
Although not all contemporary productions adhere exactly to the scripts Shakespeare originally wrote—largely because those scripts tend to be hours long and most modern audiences cannot understand Shakespeare diction—his plays still regularly appear on stage. Why does the man who wrote, “The croaking raven doth bellow for revenge,” still hold such a prominent place in the entertainment world?
The theater sphere is not alone in its love of Shakespeare, though; his is a household name. Contemporary tales are told, based off of Shakespeare but with new twists and easier vocabulary, more regularly than most people realize. For example, the movie “She’s the Man” is based off of the Shakespeare play “Twelfth Night,” and “10 Things I Hate about You” is based off of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.” Even the hit television series “Sons of Anarchy” is, according to its writer Kurt Sutter, based off of “Hamlet.” Some people are using that knowledge to predict how the series will end before it has even aired!
Hollywood has taken an interest in more than just Shakespeare’s plays, however. In 1998, it produced the movie “Shakespeare in Love,” a story about Shakespeare’s personal life. In the more recent “Anonymous,” director Roland Emmerich explored the theory that Shakespeare did not in fact write any of his plays, that they were instead written by someone more educated or socially refined, such as Francis Bacon or even Queen Elizabeth.
Whether Emmerich is correct or not—thorough scholarship tends toward the belief that Shakespeare really did write the plays—why is the man so renowned? Why is there such an interest in Shakespeare so long after his time? Why does Broadway still produce his plays, and Hollywood still adapt movies to them, and local theaters still train their young actors and actresses to recite lines that many of them probably cannot even understand?
The answer is not clear to students struggling through the difficult iambic-pentameter language, or to the public who cringes in fear at the sound of “Shakespeare.” Regardless, for some reason Shakespeare’s plays have not only survived the last 400 years, but have also become beloved tales told in their original forms and in many others to everyone from schoolchildren to scholars.
Examining his Plays
But why? In the beginning of the First Folio, the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays after his death, Ben Jonson wrote that Shakespeare is “not of an age, but for all time.” Although oftentimes the lovers of his romances have whirlwind courtships and marriages, they demonstrate timeless love; Romeo and Juliet are, after all, known as the greatest lovers of all time.
Although “Hamlet” ends—spoiler alert—with the death of Prince Hamlet’s household, the character speaks to the heart of the real broken and depressed teenager facing his father’s death and mother’s remarriage. The character provides a nearly perfect case study for psychologists like Sigmund Freud, trying to understand the melancholy personality and the causes of depression.
Although “Othello” ends up killing his young bride over unfounded jealousy, he first shows audiences that love can overcome race and rank. His bride demonstrates what a strong, independent woman can be, which is a common idea now but was unheard of in Shakespeare’s England.
Although Beatrice and Benedict act like enemies in “Much Ado about Nothing,” constantly one-upping each other with wit, they end up in love. Their friends set them up and they leave audiences laughing because, even in 2014, most people can bring to mind a young couple just like Shakespeare’s who just need to realize their compatibility. Most listeners, viewers, and readers can begin to contemplate ways to “set them up” like Hero and Claudio set up Beatrice and Benedict. If these are not timeless themes, what are?
Although the heroes of his tragedies always end up dying and the heroes of his comedies always end up married—predictable outcomes to the person who understands Shakespeare’s genres—they first touch the hearts of humans about the meaning of love, the heartbreak of betrayal, and the excitement of adventure. These timeless themes are, perhaps, why a little-known man from a little-known town became the greatest writer in English history. This is how someone with little education and social clout impacted everyone, from the queen and the peasants in the Globe Theater of his own time to high school and college students reading his works on iPhones 400 years after his death. This is why Shakespeare is a legend; this is how Shakespeare lived out his own lines from “Twelfth Night.” “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” Perhaps Shakespeare had a little of each.
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