April 23, 2016 marks the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. In his preface to the First Folio, fellow playwright Ben Jonson was prescient in recognizing Shakespeare’s immortality: “He was not of an age, but for all time!” Why is it that the work of a 16th-century playwright remains the world’s best-selling author of all time — having sold more than two billion books — and continues to be studied in high schools and colleges around the world for four centuries?
Of course, we would never be reading or studying Shakespeare, were it not for two of his fellow actors, unknown to most modern readers: John Heminge and Henry Condell. Seven years after Shakespeare’s death, Heminge and Condell compiled and printed 36 of his plays in the First Folio — some based on transcripts of the plays, others from memory alone. Indeed the world owes a huge debt to these two dedicated actors and their efforts.
The First Folio is very rare: only 750 copies were printed, and only 233 are known to exist today. In total, the Shakespeare canon consists of 38 plays (a few in collaboration with other playwrights), 154 sonnets, and two long narrative poems. Most literary scholars and critics believe that the Shakespeare canon represents the apotheosis of English literature; understandably, Shakespeare is considered the greatest writer in the English language. So why has Shakespeare earned this honor? Why do we read or study Shakespeare?
Insight into the human condition
Shakespeare was the consummate scientist, placing humanity under a microscope — to meticulously probe, dissect, and analyze his vices, his virtues; to unflinchingly reveal all. (Hamlet uses a slightly different metaphor to express the same idea: “to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature.”) It is Shakespeare’s intense focus on man’s character, his desires, his dreams, that makes his work universal and transcendent. Although society has changed dramatically in 400 years, a quick review of today’s headlines reveals that man has not changed at all — the world is full of deceit, murder, jealousy, betrayal, as well as kindness, generosity, love, and hope. In short, we can learn valuable lessons from Shakespeare’s stories and all the experiences — the good and the bad — of his characters. As Harold Bloom, author of The Western Canon: the Books and School of the Ages, expressed: “[The great authors, like Shakespeare,] remind us in every sense of re-minding us. They not only tell us things that we have forgotten but they tell us things we couldn’t possibly know without them. And they reform our minds. They make our minds stronger; they make us more vital. They make us alive!”
Like great writers before him (eg., Aeschylus, Homer, Sophocles, and Plutarch) Shakespeare is a masterful storyteller, but his genius was not confined to one genre: he wrote histories, comedies, tragedies, and poems equally well. Like any other author, Shakespeare drew some of his stories from contemporary histories and oral traditions, but he infused his stories with mythology, fantasy, wit, clever plots, astounding scenes, memorable characters, and riveting dialogue. Moreover, these stories incorporated underlying complex moral and philosophical issues worth discussing and pondering — then and now. Like the great Greek and Roman myths, Shakespeare’s plays continue to be reinterpreted and influence modern culture, inspiring countless operas, songs, plays, films, novels, and artwork.
Like Dickens, Shakespeare created great characters that are real, breathing personifications of universal feelings — Lady Macbeth (ambition, evil) Hamlet (hesitation, confusion), Lear (foolishness), Romeo (immature love), Iago (evil), Falstaff (vanity, cowardice), to name a few. Shakespeare’s characters are as real today as they were in the 16th and 17th centuries. In his landmark work, Shakespeare: the Invention of Human, Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom argues: “In Shakespeare, characters develop rather than unfold, and they develop because they reconceive themselves… [No other writer] has accomplished so well the virtual miracle of creating utterly different yet self-consistent voices for his more than one hundred major characters and many hundreds of highly distinctive minor personages.” Thus, as a dramatist, Shakespeare created characters that allowed actors to bring new nuances to the characters through their performances. For example, in early performances, Shylock was portrayed as an evil monster; later actors portrayed him as a sympathetic character, making him more human.
Modern readers often struggle with reading Shakespeare. Certainly it is challenging to read 16th-century English: words were pronounced differently, many words have either lost or have different meanings, antiquated diction (eg, use of thou, thee, ye), inverted syntax for stylistic reasons (subject-verb-complement is changed to verb-subject-complement). These challenges notwithstanding, by reading Shakespeare you are exposed to the pinnacle of literature — the most beautiful, poetic, eloquent writing in the English language. It forms an important standard for comparing other poetry and literary works. Shakespeare scholars point out that not only did the Bard invent more than 3,000 new words and phrases — thus having a huge impact on the English language — he was extremely inventive in how he used the English language (often using verbs as nouns, and nouns as verbs).
It is not hyperbole to state that the Shakespeare canon is part of the cultural heritage of the human race; it is a literary strand of DNA in the grand double helix of humanity. If an alien civilization were to study what it is to be human, they would not learn about the complexity of the human condition from reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy or the Harry Potter series; but by reading the Shakespeare canon, they would learn a great deal. In The Uses of Literature, novelist and literary critic Italo Calvino discusses how great literature speaks through the ages: “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say. The classics are books that exert a peculiar influence, both when they refuse to be eradicated from the mind and when they conceal themselves in the folds of memory, camouflaging themselves as the collective or individual unconscious.”
Roger Pringle, director of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and Honorary Governor of the Royal Shakespeare Company, summarized it this way: “[Shakespeare endures] due to his extraordinary facility for language, his memorable characters, and his wonderful stories… [In] the end, an artist only endures if people recognize his genius.” Bloom adds: “The more one read and ponders the plays of Shakespeare, the more one realizes that the accurate stance toward them is one of awe. How he was possible, I cannot know, and after two decades of teaching little else, I find the enigma insoluble.”
Read related posts: The Shakespeare Thefts: In Search of the First Folio
Who Are the Greatest Shakespeare Characters?
Best Edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets
The Most Common Myths About Shakespeare
Shakespeare the Pop Song Writer
Random Fascinating Facts About Shakespeare
Most Common Nicknames for Shakespeare
Most Beautiful Books of Shakespeare’s Sonnets
Were Shakespeare’s Sonnets Written to a Young Man?
What Dictionary Did Shakespeare Use?
Shakespeare’s Portrait as A Young Man Discovered
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For further reading: Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human by Harold Bloom (1998)