William Shakespeare is a name that most everyone reading this will assuredly recognize. A playwright of many tragedies, comedies, and mixtures of both, Shakespeare was most well-known for his ability to change up the typical drama and literary conventions during the time of his livelihood which was the late 1500s and very early 1600s.
Some of his most famous pieces include stories like Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, A Midsummer’s Night Dream, and Othello, all of which I have read for mandatory school projects.
In my English class, we are currently reading Macbeth, a story that follows the character Macbeth as he happens upon an opportunity to become king of Scotland if only he commits murder to get it. Although Macbeth isn’t planning on following through with the idea, Lady MacBeth urges him to jump on the chance. The story that results is a dramatic imagination of how people breaking stereotypical societal roles would play out.
It was common for Shakespeare’s works to feature characters who would go against the expectations at the time, but, seeing as times have progressed since Shakespeare’s death, is it still important to continue reading his works? This is an especially interesting in the topic of school when the comprehension of something as complex and convoluted as old English is not a representation of modern English comprehension by any matters.
My opinion on this matter is mixed.
I generally do not mind reading Shakespeare plays, though I would not say that I enjoy them beyond learning about some of their themes and how Shakespeare uses archetypal characters and flips them to mock and satirize characters. I like learning from Shakespeare, but, beyond that, I feel as though his stories have been reused so much that they are disinteresting to me.
But, at the time when Shakespeare started writing his plays, he was the first person creating the way that he did. It’s strange to imagine that many of the common elements and themes that Shakespeare used in his works were first time inventions in the late 1500s.
Nowadays, however, many of these themes (superficial bad versus good, the difference between actions, words, and self, and disarray, to name a few) are commonplace; they feel extremely redundant.
Seeing as we are now reading Macbeth in English class and have previously studied Othello and Romeo and Juliet in my earlier years of humanities courses, many of us, my classmates and I, had thoughts on the matter.
In one class discussion, we talked about the ways that stories build on top of each other and why the evolution of humanity retrospectively takes away the nuance and ‘fresh’ elements of Shakespeare. We agreed that Homer was one of the first of his kind in his craft and Shakespeare, logically, was inspired by that. But who gave Homer his ideas? And why do we study Shakespreare instead of Homer? (Beyond just remembering that this is an ‘English’ class…)
But it is an interesting question. Seeing how important inspiration and creativity are in the industry of writing and art in general, it makes sense that Shakespeare’s works are a greater culmination of other people’s stories, too. While he certainly wasn’t stealing and his stuff was obviously original in many aspects, it would be an oversight to ignore the fact that everyone, yes, even Shakespeare, gets inspired.
And, seeing as it has been a few years (just a few) since Shakespeare’s authorship, I had the question of why Shakespeare? especially considering the fact that there have been many newer stories by more diverse authors who tell more complex stories.
After thinking on the matter, however, I found my answer:
While I think it is important to read more pieces of literature beyond Shakespeare by more diverse creators, I also think it is not negative to understand why Shakespeare worked and why so many of his conventions are namestakes today.
As more and more people get exposed to more and more stories with more staples, they get used to it. Twist villains become boring, the idea of a woman lead character isn’t different, etc.
No author wants their story to be boring. So by using little base elements and themes inspired by other stories, creators are forced to elevate their own stories overtime, letting their works become more and more complex.
When Shakespeare’s first plays came out, they were revolutionary. If they came out now, I’m sure they would be enjoyed too but not quite as universally as they were because the type of literature and plays that the world engages with now are built off of these stories and get to explore even more ideas because Shakespeare already wrote these old stories for us.
I can only hope that this means, in the future, the world of storytelling will grow more and more so that every book can be enjoyed as if it is someone’s whole world put into words.
So, yes; we should read Shakespeare, but maybe not for the reason that you think; it’s because we should learn where we came from in order to find either inspiration or a place to grow from so that way we can change the landscape of art forever.
Writing and photography by Hazel J. Hall.
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