Why do we like Shakespeare?

Why do we like Shakespeare?

Hello everyone,

I’m writing the first draft of this website post on the notes app on my Iphone. At time of writing it’s 19:32 on Saturday 14th August 2021 and I’m in the interval of an amateur production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream at my local park. Shakespeare is-

That’s all I wrote back in August. I remember the five actors sprinting across the stage with chaotic energy, I remember the stage’s hidden trap doors and secret exits and I remember the audience, both old and young, being utterly transfixed by the show. What I don’t remember is how my note was meant to end. Shakespeare is… what? No doubt someone reading this is thinking ‘a waste of time.’

Yes, on the anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth and death I shall answer the ancient question, why do regard Shakespeare so highly?

I hope you enjoy.

I think the first reason people dislike Shakespeare is obvious. It’s bloody hard to read! Most Shakespeare textbooks have the original text on one page, a translation on the other and half a dozen footnotes. Although Shakespeare wrote in English (with a spattering of Latin) it isn’t English as we know it. Shakespearean English, also known as Early Modern English, only bears a passing resemblance to the language you’re reading this article in. Languages evolve over time and many of the words Shakespeare used are no longer in use or have different meanings. For example, the phrase ‘awful’ used to mean in awe of someone rather than harbouring any negative connotations. The point I’m trying to make is that learning Shakespeare can be difficult, particularly if you are not academically inclined.

The second reason that people dislike Shakespeare is that almost all of us were forced to study the bard. Do you remember reading Shakespeare in the classroom, or worse being forced to re-enact his plays? While there would be some who enjoyed these lesson, I think it is fair to say they are in the minority. Most young adults simply don’t care about William Shakespeare. I was one of them, I only started to enjoy Shakespeare’s works after I graduated from university. What impact could some bloke from five hundred years ago have on my life? Shakespeare can be difficult and in the wrong situation, Shakespeare can be boring.

Although historians, writers and critics have dissected every syllable of Shakespeare’s works we know surprisingly very little about the man himself. We don’t know what characters Shakespeare portrayed in his own plays, we don’t know the contents of his lost works and we can’t be sure of the correct spelling of Shakespeare’s name. Six signatures survive from his time each of which contain a different spelling. However, with the exception of the British monarchs, there are few other people from Elizabethan England that we know more about! Shakespeare’s works were catalogued in folios after his death which, due to their popularity survived to our time and it is due to their survival that we hold Shakespeare in such high regard. It is important to realise that Shakespeare, although unintentionally, is one of the world’s greatest historians. Similar to modern sit coms, Shakespeare made topical jokes about the issues of the day such as the plague or the Spanish Armada and by reading these jokes (and the accompanying back stage documents such as cast lists and bills) we can learn more about Elizabethan London.

When studying Shakespeare it is of paramount importance to realise that his works weren’t meant to be read in a classroom by unwilling and disinterested children. They were meant to be performed on a stage to a crowd of hundreds. You don’t read Shakespeare, you watch it. And more importantly you listen to it. It is easier to remember words to music or a beat of some kind rather than silence. Many of Shakespeare’s sonnets (and certainly his plays) were written in iambic pentameter, a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable. The line would have sounded like this:

de/DUM de/DUM de/DUM de/DUM de/DUM.

Let me give you three examples:

“Shall I comPARE thee TO SUMmer’s DAY” – Sonnet 18

“If MUSIC be THE food OF love, play ON” – Twelfth Night

“Two HOUSEholds, both aLIKE in DIGNity” – Romeo and Juliet

When spoken aloud the lines have a noticeable rhythm which makes it easier for the actors to remember them and makes more pleasing to the ear.

I think that the reason we most admire Shakespeare is that he understands how humans feel. We can all remember our first love like Romeo and Juliet, we’ve all experienced the feelings of loss and grief, like Hamlet and we all know what it is like experience betrayal, like Othello. These emotions resonate through the years and are as familiar to us as they would be to the Elizabethan audience.

Shakespeare knows what it is like to be human.

In short, Shakespeare is… a genius.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this post. If you want to read any of my other Shakespeare related articles click on their names below.

Who was the real Shakespeare?

Spitfire Review: Shakespeare’s Globe

Spitfire Review: Shakespeare’s Star Wars

Spitfire Review: Hamlet at Shakespeare’s Globe

I’ll see you next time.

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