It is almost four hundred years since Shakespeare, with a final flourish of his quill, completed the last of his plays. His work, however, is still played to sell-out audiences. His plays are still taught in schools, with an almost religious fervour. But what can a playwright from the seventeenth century possibly have to offer our modern society? In this world of consumerism, digital technology and fast-food, can anything that William Shakespeare wrote still be relevant?
Shakespeare penned a total of thirty seven plays; ten tragedies, ten histories and seventeen comedies. He burst onto London’s theatrical scene in the mid 1590s, quickly gaining himself a reputation as an extremely talented young writer. Since that time he has never really gone out of fashion and his plays are performed all over the world. Never before, or since, has any playwright’s work been so incredibly popular.
If you type the word ‘Shakespeare’ into an internet search engine, you will receive somewhere in the region of twenty and a half million hits. What’s more, it is possible to read all of his plays, for free, online. So, it seems that The Bard is fitting rather nicely into this new technological era.
Doubtless, however, there are people who will be mystified by Shakespeare’s lingering popularity and question the relevance of his work. It is the case that neither Shakespeare’s predecessors, nor his contemporaries, are even fractionally as influential. So, what is so special about William?
When watching an old film, from the 1940s or 1950s, it is clear that these movies have dated. The acting style is stilted and the dialogue seems strained, and yet Shakespeare’s plays, written in Elizabethan English, do not seem quite so out of date.
Perhaps this is because Shakespeare was so ahead of his time. He wrote about people such as Shylock, the Jew, and he seems to discuss anti-Semitism centuries before the phrase had been coined. Similarly, he seems to deal with issues surrounding racism in Othello. He even appears to examine feminism, even though none of his female characters would have actually been played by women.
Although the playwright’s intentions, in plays such as The Merchant of Venice and Othello, are hotly debated and can never be categorically known, it seems that Shakespeare has a sympathetic view towards the outsiders in a society. The fact that he is never overt about his own views means that no moral observation is impressed upon his audience. Instead Shakespeare presents a story, characters and their situations, and the audience is left to pass judgement over them.
A big part of the appeal of these plays is that they deal with basic human emotions, and flaws which are present in everyone. The essential elements of the human condition have not changed. This is a large factor in the continuing relevance of Shakespeare’s work. For example, many people can relate to Macbeth’s ambition, or the forbidden love of Romeo and Juliet, or Helena’s unrequited love in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Shakespeare’s excellent grasp of the complexities of human beings has led to some of the best and most rounded characters ever written. In fact, to this day there are actors who would give their right arm to play Hamlet, Macbeth, Iago, King Lear, Othello, Lady Macbeth, or Rosalind.
Shakespeare is still popular because he wrote about people that are intriguing and captivating. He wrote about situations which are truly tragic and cathartic. He wrote comedy which was witty, foolish and escapist. These are elements which never go out of fashion and they are just as relevant today as they were four hundred years ago. In fact, they will probably still be equally as relevant in another four hundred years time.