Posted by Carten Cordell / Monday, April 15th, 2013
In English classes all across the country, you’ll find no figure more divisive than William Shakespeare. Teachers love him, students hate him, but the question remains: Is Shakespeare really that big of a deal?
Yes he is.
There are plenty of criticisms leveled against him. Some think he’s outdated, boring or just flat out difficult to read. He’s been an object of some historical revisionism. People have postulated he plagiarized his works, was a secret Catholic or didn’t even exist at all.
But that’s all hogwash.
The fact is there was an English playwright and poet from humble origins, who, despite his success, lived in relative obscurity. He performed in London, put on shows for the Queen and lowered his admission prices so commoners could afford to see his shows.
Also, it might be safe to say he changed the English language forever.
If you’re still skeptical, check out these facts and ask yourself if he’s really that big of a deal.
Even if you’ve never read Shakespeare, you’ve read Shakespeare.
It would be easy to pass on literature that was penned 500 years ago in lieu of modern works of entertainment, but you’d have to search far and wide to find media that’s beyond the reach of Billy Shakes.
A number of Shakespeare’s plays have been made into modern films. The play adapted the most? “The Taming of the Shrew.” If you’ve ever watched “10 Things I Hate About You,” “Deliver Us From Eva” or “Kiss Me Kate,” you’ve basically watched Shakespeare.
You seriously can’t get away from this guy.
He changed the way you speak.
Contrary to popular belief, Shakespeare did not write in Old English. Shakespeare’s works are in Modern English, the English you speak today. This means you can get inside your magical time machine, go back to Elizabethan England and actually read Shakespeare’s work with no trouble at all. If you’re an English speaker, you can’t read Old English. That crap is basically German.
If you’re wondering why Shakespeare seems so obtuse on the page, it’s only because the figures of speech were different. Language, like every component of culture, grows and changes over time. Middle English, while being spoken almost identically as Modern English, is nearly impossible to read because it’s spelled phonetically. Just check out these passages from Chaucer.
So if Elizabethan English operated with different turns of phrase and figures of speech, how can Shakespeare affect how you speak today? Who knows, have you ever had too much of a good thing, wore your heart on your sleeve or been in a wild goose chase?
Have you ever been in pickle, been up in arms or thought, “Woe is me?” Have you ever thought the game is up, someone was the Devil incarnate or come to a foregone conclusion? Perhaps you’ve had your teeth on edge, sent someone packing or reminisced about your salad days. Maybe you’ve thought love is blind, laughed so hard you were in stitches or have been told to lie low for a while.
Maybe you pictured something in your mind’s eye, haven’t slept a wink or lived a charmed life. Maybe you should give the Devil his due, bid him good riddance or suspect foul play. Maybe you’ve fought fire with fire, wished for fair play or even turned the tide. Perhaps you’ve been eaten out of house and home, lost something in one fell swoop or were a sorry sight. Maybe you’ve gone through a sea change or your childhood dog is still dead as a door nail.
All those phrases? Coined by Shakespeare.
But testament to the staying power of Shakespeare was his ability to completely change a metaphysical concept into a simple adjective.
The Wyrd was an ancient Anglo-Saxon belief that fate was predetermined, but subject to random occurrences that would cause one’s course in life to jump from one fixed conclusion to the next. Shakespeare toys with the concept of the Wyrd in “Macbeth” when he constructs the Weird Sisters. The Sisters are three witches who represent an amalgamation of ideas, mostly drawing from pagan ritual, the Wyrd and the Greek Fates, the Moirai.
As a result of portraying entities that are unknown and on the verge of human comprehension, the actors playing the Weird Sisters tended to act quite strange on stage. Audiences noticed their movements and speech to be out of the ordinary, and as a result the public began to use the connotation that “weird” relates to something odd, out of place or strange.
This dude changed how people thought. That takes serious writing chops.
Like it or not, Shakespeare is still relevant today.
Billy Shakes was truly a man ahead of his time. He tackled feminist issues, often penning strong female leads. He took on racism and xenophobia in “Othello.” He postulated existentialism in “Hamlet” and “King Lear” some 400 years before it was coined by European philosophers.
But like all great works of art, Shakespeare’s narratives still remain relevant today.
Not only are his plays filled with filthy jokes, but high schools across the country wouldn’t be reading “Romeo and Juliet” if a story about stupid teenagers with little parental supervision weren’t relevant.
But perhaps the best example is in a story that aired on This American Life. This story follows a performance of “Hamlet” in maximum security prison. For those who are uninformed, “Hamlet” is the story of a man contemplating murder. Thus a play about a man contemplating committing murder is staged and performed by men who have contemplated, then acted upon, taking a human life.
Give it a listen and wonder if Shakespeare doesn’t hold weight today.
So give it up! The guy was a genius and a wonderful writer. Next time someone tries to tell you the dude was a sellout or a plagiarizer, feel free to smack them upside the head with some knowledge.
Tags: Chaucer, coined, David Schuller, Deliver Us From Eva, English, English language, existentialism, German, Hamlet, King Lear, Kiss Me Kate, Middle English, Northern Virginia, Northern Virginia Magazine, NoVA, Old English, phrases, Pocahontas, racism, Romeo and Juliette, sexism, The Lion King, The Taming of the Shrew, The Tempest, This American Life, William Shakespeare