William Shakespeare: 450 Years of the Bard

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“This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.” — William Shakespeare (Hamlet)

William Shakespeare. One of the greatest men in history, one of the most quoted, present in almost every school English curriculum, with works as influential today as they were when first performed for an Elizabethan audience. Today marks the 450th anniversary of his birth (as far as we are able to discern), and yet his name is still recognizable throughout the world. Chances are you are able to name at least three of his plays, could identify his picture, and quote him with ease. It’s amazing to think about just how far Shakespeare’s works have spread over time and space. But, how exactly does a simple playwright born in 1564 maintain such a presence in the vastly different world of 2014? Myself, I hail the bard as one of the greatest literary figures to have lived, but I know others who would disagree as to his relevance, which is a shame. So, here are my reasons for praising Mr Shakespeare so much, and why I believe his works are as important today as they have ever been.

First, some back story. It’ll do you well to know that Shakespeare began writing at an interesting period in history; England was the world’s great superpower, and as such the economy was thriving under the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Art and culture became an accessible luxury for even the lowest classes, and this opened up a wealth of opportunists for artists of every medium. Shakespeare himself began his career as the co-owner and actor of a small theatre company in London. However, past his booming profession as a writer, little is known about his personal life. One thing is certain, Shakespeare, as a product of growing lower class audiences, was a play-write for the people. Nowadays, due to the difference in language and culture, it may be hard to see this, but Shakespeare designed his stories to be seen and understood by everyone.

Like many writers of the time, Shakespeare used dramatic themes and a variety of characters to draw audiences in, a methodology of the craft still used in literature to this very day. Arguably, Shakespeare solidified the idea of characterisation being fundamental to presenting themes. He used his characters to draw out his underlying ideas, rather than the other way around, and this meant that audiences related to cast and could therefore follow plots more simply. Despite what you might believe, non of Shakespeare’s more popular plays are actually all that complex; no more so than a dramatic novel anyway. If you can navigate the language (which is down to nothing more than exposure) the story-lines are easy to follow. Shakespeare wrote for the masses, and his miraculous use of theme is what makes him so popular in schools.

So, what do I keep drowning on about ‘theme’? Yes, William Shakespeare was a master of weaving theme, character and plot seamlessly, but why does that make him significant today? It’s not like we lack other examples of this talent from the same era and later. The difference, for me anyway, is that Shakespeare wrote about subjects still being questioned today. He always found the obscurity to subjects like love, anger and humour and wasn’t afraid to express them in risky ways, and he ridiculed monarch and average man alike. His works were so beloved because they experimented with general understanding. Think you understand love, here’s two kids who never get to explore love due to anger. Think you know pride, here’s a king whose pride blinds him to truth. Shakespeare knew how to keep things interesting and still keep them meaningful, for everyone. It’s no wonder his stories have hung around so long; even by today’s standards they’re unique. In fact they’re the basis of many, many, many retellings. What’s more, they never lose their impact. Even something as ubiquitous as Romeo and Juliet, with a thousand and one variations, is still being mined for what it has to offer.

And that is the genius of Shakespeare. His timeless stories. It’s the same reason the Grimm fairy-tales are still being told and retold. There’s always something new to be found in anything Shakespeare has written, because he allowed for many variations of people to interpret the contents of his works. It’s a shame so many people are put off his plays, because they were written with you, the general, every man audience in mind. So, today, on the 450th birthday of the Bard-of-Avon, I urge you to watch a Shakespeare play and enjoy it, because you will gain something from doing so, if you stop thinking about what you’ve been told to see, and just be drawn in.

Happy Birthday, William Shakespeare. Thanks for all the awesome stories, and for revolutionizing the art of storytelling.

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