Every age and every nation has embraced William Shakespeare, arguably the world’s greatest writer, born in April 1564 – making this month the 450th anniversary of his birth. As the celebrations are held across the world, as his work continues to be performed in Japan, Korea, Africa, Surrey and Scotland, adapted by the BBC, Bollywood, and Hollywood, and honoured with 154 YouTube videos shot in New York City, it is worth asking: why has he endured across time for so many?
His reputation is not untarnished; he has his critics. His top spot in the literary canon is simply down to education and tradition, suggest some. There have been calls for his relegation, for his work to be replaced – in the education curriculum, as well as the general dominance of his work in our culture – with contemporary and diverse plays and poetry, with work by someone who is not a “dead white male”.
So, with this anniversary we should pause for a moment and reflect: did the Bard from Stratford-upon-Avon just get lucky? Is his popularity due to the fact that he is simply difficult to avoid? Is he, in short, overrated? On every count, the answer is no.
Undoubtedly, part of the attraction of his work is that we have heard his stories time and time again. They pervade our lives. We all know the famous lines “To be, or not to be”, “O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?”, or “If music be the food of love, play on”.
Despite the addition of new work and work from elsewhere, it remains difficult to bypass Shakespeare at school. There is, then, an element to the adulation that is down to dominance and history, but it is a deserved position and not an accidental one, because what is so interesting about his work is that it continues to be relevant and vibrant to millions, even though he was writing centuries ago for a very different audience.
When Ben Johnson, a rival, said of Shakespeare that he was the “Soul of the Age”, yet he was also “not of an age, but for all time”, Johnson made an important observation. Shakespeare’s achievement appears contradictory: he was writing in and about a particular historical moment, but he also transcended it. His work is infused with observations on what was happening around him: the move from Catholicism to Protestantism, the shift away from feudalism, the impact of trade and travel, and the origins of a consciousness about the world – indeed, his plays are full of the word “world”. And yet despite this historical rootedness, his work can be detached from this moment.
It can also be separated from England. In the four centuries since he died, his work has been translated into more languages than any other writer. Yet this was a man born in a small market town in Warwickshire, who travelled little. Despite references to many other countries, he never left his own. It’s not even clear if he ventured far beyond Birmingham.
One reason Shakespeare has been appreciated over time and across cultures is because his work explores universal features of human life, including death, love, power and greed. We can all recognise the desires, feelings and challenges faced by his characters. One of the most well-known lines, spoken by Jaques in As You Like It, informs his fellow characters (and us) that “all the world’s a stage” – a solemn reminder that we are merely temporary extras in someone else’s drama.
When the Youth League of the African National Congress formed in 1944, advocating a more militant African nationalism, with members that included Nelson Mandela, they ended their first manifesto with lines from Act 1 of Julius Caesar: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars/But in ourselves, that we are underlings.” His work helped them to articulate their dreams and ambitions. And when Mandela found himself, years later, in prison, he found solace in other lines in the same play, ones about courage in the face of death: the “necessary end” which “will come when it will come”. We are all mortal, as Hamlet reminds us: “Thou know’st ‘tis common; all that lives must die, Passing through nature to eternity.” Shakespeare helps us reflect on our short lives.
Whilst being universal, his work is adaptable, open to varied interpretation. In India, where Shakespeare’s works were exported during the 19th century (as part of the imperial education system), they were not only reworked, but stimulated a flourishing in Indian playwriting and poetry. Admittedly, this is not the case with every play. The Merchant of Venice, a romantic comedy that rests on the defeat of a Jew, seems unnecessarily cruel and is difficult to read or watch. But even here, Shylock’s own words – “Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? … If you prick us, do we not bleed?” – contain the questions we would ask Shakespeare in relation to this play.
Most important of all, he captured a time when people were reflecting – for the first time in this way – about what is to be human.
Unlike earlier literary figures, Shakespeare’s characters possess a self-awareness. They are self-conscious, like us. And whereas during this time in Italy man was conceptualised as divine, with Shakespeare, man is capable of more complicated and devious acts. As Hamlet reflects: “What piece of work is man? How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty!…In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!” And yet, Hamlet laments. “Man delights not me.” It is these profound and nuanced mediations on the question of who we are, that I think explains the power of the Bard.
If this doesn’t persuade you of Shakespeare’s continued worth, consider one of his insults: “Thou art a boil. A plague sore, an embossed carbuncle in my corrupted blood.” Nothing else can top the Bard when it comes to being flamboyantly nasty about another.
Let us wish him many more happy returns.