NOV / DEC 2015: BY LIANNE M. BERNARDO
Dramatist Ben Jonson once praised William Shakespeare in a poem, declaring that he “was not of an age, but for all time!” Indeed William Shakespeare, the playwright from Stratford-upon-Avon who lived from c1560s to 1616, very much embodied the burst of creativity and art that came out of England during the sixteenth century. Having written over thirty six plays and numerous poems and sonnets, his works not only encapsulated the fervor of the English Renaissance but have also endured the test of time.
The staying power of his works and continued prevalence in today’s culture—from English studied to theatre and popular culture—lies in several factors. There is of course its contribution to the English language. Despite of the obvious difference in usage from today’s English and the style that it is written in, Shakespeare’s usage of the language has, in some ways, solidified its place in the language as a whole. He even created words that have found places in contemporary English such as “lacklustre”, “frugal”, and “star-crossed.” Additionally, he coined a number of phrases and expressions that continue to be uttered to this very day, through popular culture, parody, or everyday dialogue: “To be or not to be”, “My kingdom for a horse”, “All the world’s a stage”, and “What’s done is done” just to name a few.
Shakespeare’s works continue to be a source of study in that it crosses boundaries and classes. The characters that inhabit his works come from a broad spectrum of society: his characters were members of royalty, well-off merchants, foot soldiers, holy men and women, and peddlers. His works comment on a wide range of issues, from carrying out the law (Measure for Measure) to religious discrimination (The Merchant of Venice) and divine right (Richard II) to filial love and obedience (King Lear). His works of course reflected much of the times he lived in, such as Elizabethan politics (Julius Caesar), recent history (Richard II) and incorporating Scottish politics and lore (Macbeth), but the issues he presented continue to resonate today as our societies continue to struggle against discrimination, poverty, and war and confront moments of conflict, anger, and mercy. Whether it is Hamlet contemplating life and death or Viola pleading her case for the strengths and constancy of women or Shylock listing out the injustices made against him, Shakespeare’s plays provides an earnest grasp of a situation, leaving his characters and the audience to come to their own conclusions and opinions.
What is also very compelling about Shakespeare and why he continues to endure despite of the times is the fact that his stories and the themes he grapples with are universal and timeless: love, ambition, betrayal, guilt, pride, losing loved ones. Even when one is scratching one’s head deciphering the language and the deeper meanings (or lewd jokes) behind the dialogue, one can easily relate to what the characters are going through. His plays reveal a whole range of emotions and situations that cast light on the human condition, the dilemmas of decision-making, the conflict of different goals, ideas, and desires: Do you save one’s brother at the expense of your principles? Do you go against the king, God’s appointed on earth, in the name of justice and the goodwill of the people? Do you allow nature to take its course or do you seize destiny in your hands? These individuals may have completely different life experiences from ourselves—Richard II’s Bolingbroke, Othello’s titular character, Much Ado About Nothing’s Beatrice—but we know what it’s like to fall in love, how difficult it is to make a life-altering decision, what it’s like to hold a grudge. Their emotional responses to the dilemmas they face are what enables the modern reader and viewer to connect with them over the course of their stories.
In the end, despite the fact that these plays were written in a time vastly different from our own and written in a way that is different from modern plays, Shakespeare’s works continue to endure and continue to be performed in our day and age. His work, inspired from other sources, have gone on and inspired many playwrights, artists, and novelists after him. His works resonate because of the story arcs that the characters undergo, connecting the modern audiences to their experiences despite the time gap. They also resonate because despite the difference in life and times, some things have not changed: war, sickness, love, hate, guilt—the human condition remains the same. That Shakespeare was able to encapsulate these feelings and emotions rightfully places him at the head of great English playwrights to emerge in the English Renaissance. ♥
Lianne Bernardo is a 20-something Canadian who loves history, period dramas, British TV, photography, and (European) football. She is an avid reader, from fantasy to literature to historical fiction, and extensively blogs about them on her website, When she isn’t reading, she’s working on her writing projects. Her Twitter: @eclectictales.