At some point in our lives, most of us will read at least one of William Shakespeare’s plays. Whether that be for a high school English class, for a college research essay, or just for the bragging rights of saying you have read Shakespeare for fun, the famous playwright is practically engraved in the history of English literature. His work is taught all across America to millions of people. Nevertheless, many high school students and teachers are left asking the same question: Why, 400 years later, are we still learning about this British poet and playwright?
To many people, Shakespeare’s works are a thing of the past–irrelevant, boring, and difficult to understand due to the confusing syntax and word choice. While it is true that Shakespeare can be a struggle to read for many high school students, Shakespeare’s work, told in interesting and well-developed ways, covers themes that are still pertinent and applicable to today’s society. For example, plays like “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Romeo and Juliet” cover different forms of love and the challenges that can often appear in strong relationships, be they romantic or platonic.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” follows many couples throughout the play, with some representing young, idyllic love, and others displaying sadder, darker forms of love, such as possessive and unrequited love. All these forms of affection play off each other in the production and display real challenges and obstacles that often stand in the way of such strong relationships, as well as how characters overcome them.
Another work of Shakespeare that centers on love is one you have probably heard of before. “Romeo and Juliet” is a surprisingly progressive interpretation of young romance, even by today’s standards. Shakespeare leaves hidden messages in the form of Juliet, emphasizing how her young age and unwanted engagement to an old man influence her rushed romance and drastic decisions. He gives Juliet agency but also explores how youth and societal expectations of high-status women at the time influence Juliet’s judgment. Love is a concept that Shakespeare digs into frequently in his work, and each time he approaches it, he shows it in a different light. Different characters love one another differently, but all forms of love speak to a universal human truth.
However, love is not the only theme Shakespeare tackles in his productions. In tragedies such as “Macbeth,” he explores how good people can be corrupted by power and how attempting to control every aspect of one’s life can lead to sorrow instead of success. The compelling story follows a Scottish war hero named Macbeth, who receives a prophecy that tells him he will become king and that his friend’s sons will succeed him. In his quest for power, Macbeth makes continuous lapses of judgment, blinded by his desire to become King of Scotland while being pressured to commit various crimes by his wife, Lady Macbeth. “Macbeth,” like many other Shakespeare plays, is timeless in its ability to ask difficult questions and explore interesting themes.
Additionally, Shakespeare’s influence on English vocabulary cannot be overstated. Shakespeare’s work is notoriously difficult to read and understand; however, although many of us probably think Shakespeare’s word choice to be outdated, the famous poet’s extensive experimentation with language is responsible for over 1700 words today. According to the Celtic English Academy, an English language school in the United Kingdom, these are just a few words we can contribute to Shakespeare: generous, birthplace, negotiate, amazement, bedroom, and many, many others. Although his sentence structure and word choice might confuse us a bit today, Shakespeare helped to shape modern English. Understanding Shakespeare and how his popularity as a playwright impacted English gives us insight into how culture and societal circumstances can influence language.
However, Shakespeare’s sway over literature and media does not just stop at language. Believe it or not, even if you have never heard of Shakespeare before, chances are you have encountered him in your day-to-day life. If you are a fan of theater, you probably know of the 1957 musical, “West Side Story.” The production follows Tony, a former member of a gang called the Jets, and Maria, the sister of the leader of the Sharks. The Jets and the Sharks are rival gangs and constantly vie for dominance of a neighborhood in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Sound familiar? It should. “West Side Story” is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” and it explores tragic love and conflict between ethnic groups in America.
However, maybe theater is not your thing, and you’ve never heard of “West Side Story.” You may prefer movies instead; other adaptations of Shakespeare’s work have made their way to the big screen. “The Lion King” is a famous example of this. The popular animated Disney film aired in 1994, and its storyline is an adapted form of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” which was written around the 1600s.
Even 400 years after his death, Shakespeare remains a household name in Western culture. His timeless stories, impact on the English language, and influence in modern-day media has kept him alive and relevant in today’s society. Learning Shakespeare is important, not because it is such a long-running tradition in American schools, but because Shakespeare and his work have roots that run bone-deep in Western culture today.