If you click over to Google today, you’ll see that their logo commemorates William Shakespeare, who was born (according to our best guess) on April 23, 1564, and died on April 23, 1616. Today marks the 400th anniversary of his death, and if you’re like me, that’s cause for celebration. But why? To modern readers, Shakespeare’s language feels incredibly old-fashioned and out of date. It’s difficult to read, and most of the words are foreign to us. Shakespearean English, or Elizabethan English, was actually the beginning of modern English, though it doesn’t feel like that today.
It seems that modern audiences (particularly modern students) want to know why we should still read Shakespeare–why does it matter that some guy wrote a bunch of plays back in the 1600s? Here are four reasons why Shakespeare still matters.
1. Shakespeare Changed the English Language
Shakespeare is credited with inventing around 1,700 words that we use today. When he couldn’t think of a word, he created one. Often he played with the parts of speech to get his message across. Here are just a few words he gets credit for inventing:
accused, addiction, advertising, bandit, bedroom, blanket, besmirch, elbow, eyeball, frugal, generous, hobnob, impartial, jaded, lower, luggage, madcap, majestic, moonbeam, noiseless, outbreak, pedant, puking, rant, scuffle, submerge, torture, undress, vaulting, worthless, zany
It’s quite possible that some of these words already existed at the time, but if Shakespeare hadn’t used them in his plays, we might not have a record of them. So even if he didn’t invent them all, he still preserved them for us to use today. Not to mention the way he manages to arrange all of those words is at times beautiful, clever, shocking, and hilarious.
In addition to inventing words, Shakespeare coined hundreds of phrases that we still use. Some of his phrases seem so common to us that we can’t imagine anyone actually sat down and invented them, but if you’ve ever said any of these things, you’re quoting Shakespeare:
- Dead as a doornail
- In my mind’s eye
- Sick at heart
- The makings of…
- One fell swoop
- Devil incarnate
- What a piece of work…
- Elbow room
- Salad days
- Forever and a day
- There’s the rub
- For goodness’ sake
- All that glitters is not gold
- Foregone conclusion
- Full circle
And that’s only a small portion of his inventions. You can read more here.
2. Shakespeare Shaped the Literary Canon
Shakespeare wrote 37 plays and 154 sonnets in a span of about 24 years. That’s incredible! His plays are still in production now, and countless film, television, and stage adaptations have been made across the years. Today, you can choose from many editions of his plays: Arden, Riverside, Oxford, Cambridge, Folger, and Pelican editions, to name a few.
Almost every high school or college student has labored through a Shakespeare drama, and entire books have been written about the performance of certain plays. You can read this brief history of Hamlet’s stage history over on the Royal Shakespeare Company’s website. Without Shakespeare, our very understanding of drama and character development would be different. You can read more about that here.
3. Shakespeare’s Plays are Still Relevant
Shakespeare’s plays touch on topics that still resonate with modern audiences–from insanity to family love to unrequited love to questions about the nature of human existence, the plays cover it all. Here are just a few:
Macbeth shows just how fallen humans are, and it shows the tension between fate or destiny and a man’s free choices.
Hamlet deals with ambition, family loyalty, revenge, and a search for self-knowledge.
Much Ado About Nothing tackles marriage and the complexities of language.
Henry V contains themes of patriotism, power, family, and loyalty. It’s also the foundation for just about every war movie.
While it can be a challenge and even a chore to muddle through Shakespeare’s language, the themes and ideas underlying the work are worth it. It’s also amazing that the plays are so deep and communicative, considering that they also contain dirty jokes and slapstick humor meant to keep audiences happy and engaged.
4. Knowing Shakespeare is an Asset
Ken Ludwig, the author of How to Teach your Children Shakespeare, argues that knowing Shakespeare gives you a head start. There’s just something special about knowing the plot to a Shakespeare play or being able to quote sections of his work that gives students a power over the English language. Knowing Shakespeare doesn’t mean reading through all 37 plays and memorizing a soliloquy from each, it means being aware of your cultural heritage and understanding the importance of these foundational plays.
These are just some of the reasons why one of my long-term goals is reading through all 37 plays. It’s a slow process, because reading them takes time. If you’re not excited about slogging through Titus Andronicus (and I wouldn’t be either, if I were you, it’s pretty much a terrible play), here are a few suggestions for making Shakespeare a little more tolerable.
- Listen to Shakespeare on audiobook. You can find some great versions on Audible.
- Watch a movie version. There are countless options, and some of them are even on Netflix!
- Go see a production. That’s how these plays were meant to be enjoyed in the first place! Seeing actors up on stage might help you understand the words a little bit better.
- Find the fun in Shakespeare. Check out The Reduced Shakespeare Company or other funny books and movies designed to make Shakespeare more approachable. It doesn’t have to be hard work.
- Read a speech or a sonnet. These smaller portions are more manageable and may be just the right amount of Shakespeare for you.
Who knows, you might just fall in love with the Bard!