Imagine, in the age of emojis, 140-character status updates and audio books, being confronted with a phrase like “thrice hath Calphurnia in her sleep cried out “Help, ho, they murder Caesar!’”
Or lines like: “Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back/Wherein he puts alms for oblivion.”
Immortal lines – yes.
But does the world of William Shakespeare, carefully crafted in the 16th century Elizabethan England, still resonate in our daily lives? Or, like Julius Caesar, has his canon become a relic of history, fondly remembered every April?
When both Shakespeare and English dramatist Francis Beaumont died in the spring of 1616, their burial places seemed to predict two very divergent legacies. While Beaumont joined Geoffrey Chaucer and Edmund Spenser in their final resting place at the Westminster Abbey, Shakespeare was laid to rest in the relative obscurity of his native Stratford-upon-Avon, the standard protocol for moderately famous personalities. But by 18th and 19th centuries, Shakespeare had outpaced all his peers in terms of literary fame – and by the beginning of the 20th century he was firmly enshrined as an artistic genius for all ages and seasons, with a dramatic impact around the world.
From critics steeped in the history of the bard to academicians around the world and the general public, the legacy of Shakespeare has been vigorously debated, with a focus on whether his works should continue to be taught in schools and colleges, and whether Generation Y and millennials would be able to relate to him.
“Many of Shakespeare’s basic themes - love, treachery, honour, bravery and political intrigue – still resonate today and are anything but obsolete,” says Sir Jonathan Bate, a British academic, critic and novelist who is among the foremost of Shakespeare scholars alive today. “He is the greatest dramatist, the greatest poet and the greatest prose writer in the history of the language.” Centuries after his death, Shakespeare’s language does sound archaic, but his world view is not, says Bates, who is also a co-editor of The RSC Shakespeare: The Complete Works. In a passionate defence in the Guardian, Bates writes: “His works might not always conform to the model of the ancients, but they are true to life. That’s one of the principal reasons why Shakespeare’s drama is, as Johnson recognised, ‘the mirror of life’”.
Here are six reasons why Shakespeare still remains a critical element of contemporary culture:
One of the marvels of the Shakespearean canon is that with each new episode of history, a new dimension of his work seems to open up, mimicking the social and political milieu of the era. During the Cold War, for instance, King Lear became Shakespeare’s most popular play, with its combination of starkness, absurdity and political manipulation resonating deeply with the mood of the age. It even inspired Peter Brook’s dark remake of the play. In an earlier era, when King George III allegedly went mad, King Lear was deemed off limits for public performance in Britain.
Romeo And Juliet might be the fodder for clichés, but the dramatic denouement about two star-crossed lovers is also a proof of Shakespeare’s appeal beyond the ages: it has been adapted for countless stage, film, musicals and opera versions. From plays to sonnets, the great bard’s works are replete with timeless themes such as love, friendship and vengeance. And in their effortless exposition he reveals a mastery rarely seen in literature ever since. His openness about human desires – whether they are sexual, political, religious or manipulative – has further reinforced this appeal.
For an age when women were not allowed to perform on stage, Shakespeare’s women characters surprisingly capture issues that are still relevant today. From Viola in Twelfth Night to Lady Macbeth, Katherine in Taming of the Shrew or Portia, all his women characters are not only critical parts of the plot but also break moulds and reflect almost similar challenges faced by today’s womenfolk: from their struggle for equality to the desire for power, and, to paraphrase Thomas Hardy, to be loved to madness.
Besides such a strong array of women characters, Shakespeare also reflected an acute awareness of social hierarchies but utilized his craftsmanship most effectively to give voice to those in the periphery of the society. A Shylock might be a revolution in 16th century England, but in contemporary society Shakespeare might also be celebrated as a social scientist. In addition, Shakespeare’s plays have often been used to convey socially-charged messages - whether during apartheid in South Africa, or Corinne Jaber’s 2005 production of Love’s Labour’s Lost in Kabul, which allowed men and women to perform together for the first time in 30 years, or during the disintegration of the Soviet empire.
Hamlet struggles to cope with the death of his father, King Lear cannot reconcile with the loss of his power and fading vision, and Macbeth is ultimately torn apart because of his ambition. But these are the same traits we see in us and in people around us – across social and geographical boundaries. When Lady Macbeth screams “Out, damned spot” and cries in vain for her guilt to vanish, she is also the messenger of the enduring complexity of human desire and destruction.
Inventor of words and language:
In the Oxford Quote Dictionary, the Bible has 47 pages full of memorable quotes, but Shakespeare has 66. And therein lies the most enduring legacy of Shakespeare. While English as we know it was only spoken in England during Shakespeare’s time, the bard helped create and share many words as the language started to spread. He invented more than 1,500 common words and usages – by changing nouns into verbs, verbs into adjectives, connecting words never used together before and coining whole new words. From advertising to amazement, assassination to cold-blooded compromise, and courtship to remorseless savagery, English language does owe a great debt to the man from Stratford-upon-Avon. While parting from a long list of his achievement is “such sweet sorrow,” but then as Shakespeare himself said, “the world is my oyster”.