Why do we still study Shakespeare?

Shakespeare died more than 400 years ago & has written 37 plays and 154 sonnets. But why do we still study Shakespeare after all this time? 

When the First Folio of Shakespeare’s work was published in 1623 – fellow writers concluded that Shakespeare was ‘not of an age, but for all time’. As Bruce Smith, Professor of English at USC also comments; “Shakespeare reveals a different face to different cultures and different people at different times”. His works are universal and enduring, and we can all relate to the feelings evoked by his stories and recognise the mark that his characters leave. We can identify with Hamlet’s despondency, we can recognise Othello’s envy, and we can feel Lear’s decline. His characters are familiar yet at the same time they surprise us out of our complacency – and so they continue to spark interest and engagement. The same applies to the themes found within his works; they still resonate and provide key lessons to contemporary audiences, themes of: greed and ambition, a desire for revenge, corrupt politics, heartbreak and the pursuit of love are all weaved into the plots of his plays. 

The ability to read, understand, and analyse his prose allows readers to be able to unlock understanding to other great works. His plays have pathed the way for many modern re-inventions and adaptations of his work, many of our modern-day favourites and ‘classics’ have been re-worked from Shakespeare. Examples include:  West side story, 10 things I hate about you, Mean Girlsand even the Lion Kingcan all be connected to Shakespeare whether directly or merely coincidentally. 

As Trapp says, “Shakespeare’s plays have an openness to them”, “they inspire thought, and his capacious works invite reinvention”. The plots we think of as quintessentially Shakespearean – Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Hamlet and King Lear and others – are all based on old stories, histories and myths that he reworked into his own material. Shakespeare was a master at adapting and his work was largely based on borrowing and interpretation. Therefore, it seems only fitting that his works have been reworked endlessly, this also helps to continue the understanding and enjoyment of Shakespeare. 

Shakespeare’s influence is far and wide, he is not just remembered as a famous playwright. He is accountable for almost 1,700 words and phrases found in the OED, so it is clear to see that he has had a profound effect and contribution not just to society but also to the English language itself. You have most likely quoted Shakespeare before and maybe even on a regular basis, with no awareness that you have. ‘Hood-winked’,‘tongue-tied’ ,‘in a pickle’, ‘break the ice’ and ‘be-all and end-all’ are all Shakespearean phrases that have become part of common, daily language. 

Despite this clear and significant impact, we mustn’t forget the main purpose of Shakespeare’s works:entertainment. He wrote his plays for enjoyment and therefore raises the question: if modern day audiences can tackle the flowery, poetic and apparently different language then surely, they will uncover not just hidden meaning but good plot, characters and relationships.

Hence, one important thing we can conclude from Shakespeare is: we can make meaning of our experiences; enhance our understanding of the English language and enjoy reading, watching and understanding his plays. 

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