Shakespeare died 400 years ago this week. Who cares?
Well, millions and millions of people. Shakespeare remains the most produced playwright in America. Over 90% of American high school students study his plays and poetry, not to mention half of all secondary school students around the world. His reach as a cultural force extends well beyond North America and Europe. There are more Shakespeare movies produced in Bollywood than the US and UK combined. Characters and phrases from Shakespeare’s writings appear now in dystopian novels, Disney cartoons, Broadway musicals, and hip-hop music. The marvel of this writer’s talents is as great as the fact of his global staying power. Four centuries after his death, people from around the world are still conversing with this glover’s son from Warwickshire. Why does the conversation continue?
With Shakespeare, lightning struck many times in one place. How else are we to explain his canniness about people, his dazzling use of language, his unerring ability to find a human pulse in almost any situation? All of these gifts find their expression in stories, stories that invite us to pass into other people’s lives and experiences. Through Shakespeare’s plays we learn to empathize with those who are not like ourselves, or to glimpse the communities we might someday become – for better and for worse.
Think of familiar situations found in his plays: troubled relationships of fathers with daughters (King Lear, The Tempest), sibling rivalry (As You Like It, Richard III), familial loss (Hamlet, Pericles), forgiveness (The Winter’s Tale), self-destruction (Macbeth), youthful rebellion (Henry IV, The Two Gentlemen of Verona), falling in love (Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing), or standing up for what you believe (Measure for Measure, King John). Shakespeare was just as alert to experiences that set us apart as the “other”. What does it feel like to be on the run, forced to hide who you really are? The beginnings of an answer are in Cymbeline and All’s Well That Ends Well. How does it feel to be an outsider, distrusted because of one’s race, gender, or country of origin? Have a look at The Merchant of Venice, Othello, or The Comedy of Errors.
Shakespeare speaks to us in 2016 because politics, war, and the task of trying to understand one another still matter. Markets and social media will only teach us so much about what drives us; to learn more, we need the humanities and the arts that inspire them. Shakespeare’s stories are a touchstone for this kind of reflective thinking. Viewers of Netflix series “House of Cards” may or may not recognize that they are watching the story of Richard III’s marriage to Lady Macbeth. But the writers of the series knew that such characters speak to our political moment in a way that others cannot. The human drama of politics becomes more vivid when a storyline from Shakespeare makes it come alive, as when Joe Biden was said to be having his “Hamlet moment” while contemplating a 2016 run for President.
Even Shakespeare’s remarkable knack for transforming history into drama is finding a new expression in 2016. What did it feel like for Londoners to see their own history – the centuries-old reign of Richard II presented in Shakespeare’s play – delivered in a remarkable new verse form called iambic pentameter? The same way it feels for Americans to see characters from colonial history speaking the language of hip hop in the Broadway musical Hamilton (a production in which Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton compares himself to Macbeth, James Madison to Banquo, and Thomas Jefferson to Macduff).
Shakespeare became the writer he was because he lived in London at the turn of the 17th century, a period of upheaval that still has something to teach us today. Think about what we struggle with: sectarian violence, economic inequality, environmental degradation, and media change. Shakespeare too lived in an age of disruption, an age that saw changes in mass communication via the printed book, but also in ideas about the dignity of the individual, about freedom of conscience and expression, and about religious toleration.
Shakespeare was writing poems and plays as the European colonial project took shape, with its disastrous effects, and when something that would eventually be called science was finding its footing. He lived in the world where forests were being cut and fields enclosed so that landowners could graze sheep for the European cloth trade, displacing those who traditionally used the land. Shakespeare’s London was a world of urbanization, crime, intelligence networks, mercantilist stock exchanges, and the new form of secular entertainment we now call theater. The world Shakespeare was writing about was in the process of becoming our own, which is why he continues to speak the language of our anxieties and dreams.
Shakespeare used stories and poetry to explore who we are and, more importantly, who we might become. As we look out on the horizon of the twenty-first century, we see what Earl Lewis has called our “yet to be perfected future.” On this 400th anniversary of his death, we celebrate Shakespeare’s staying power as a poet, playwright, and cultural force. But we also celebrate the nearly infinite adaptability of his stories and the fact that they sustain a conversation across a truly diverse set of languages and cultural forms. The conversation continues because of what we, every one of us, bring to it. Shakespeare belongs to all of us. A traveler with no passport, he stands at the edge of a vast world of the imagination, of history, and of the human heart. We should continue to explore all three.
Join us in 2016 for The Wonder of Will, celebrating Shakespeare and his extraordinary legacy through special events, exhibitions, performances, and more—online, at the Folger, and across the United States!
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