Why Is Shakespeare Still Important?
William Shakespeare is (arguably) the most recognisable name in English literature. And even if you haven’t heard of him, you’ll know about some of his plays, like Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet. Even beyond that, if you’ve ever seen an actor chatting to a skull, or watched West Side Story or 10 Things I Hate About You, then you know something about him.
Few people deny that he’s one of the most important writers to have ever lived – but why?
In a world in which ‘everyone is writing a book’ (Cicero said that all the way back in around 100 BC, and it’s still true today, two thousand years later), why is Shakespeare one of the few names that continues to resonate through the centuries?
Who was he?
Before we launch into his work and legacy, here’s a quick biography of the man behind the plays. William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, all the way back in 1564. The Shakespeares weren’t a noble family, but his father did hold positions in local government and William was probably sent to the local grammar school as a child. At eighteen, he married a woman called Anne Hathaway (not that one!), and later moved to London. He made a name for himself as an actor and then as a playwright in the capital. He lived between London and his hometown, while his wife and kids stayed in Stratford.
We don’t remember Shakespeare because of his family, or a ground-breaking scandal. It’s his work that earned him such an impressive reputation. But what’s so special about it? Well, we’re glad you asked…
A lot of Shakespeare’s plays deal with really big, universal themes. Things like life, love, death and betrayal. He might write about them in slightly funny language and in the context of an England that existed 400 years ago, but they’re topics that we can still relate to today.
One of the best-known speeches in the world begins ‘To be or not to be.’ It sees a young man struggle with questions of death and the afterlife in the face of crippling grief. You can set the monologue in any context, at any time and in any place; the emotion and rawness of the words will still resonate deeply with the audience. Similarly, Romeo and Juliet’s professions of love are amongst the most beautiful in the English canon. And their story of a forbidden relationship is one with which many modern audience members can still sympathise. The topics that Shakespeare explores in his plays, then, are things that everyone throughout history can relate to. The fact we continue to identify with situations he writes about is one of the biggest reasons we still read him so widely today.
The themes covered in the plays are universal, but the relatability of the characters is even more impressive. It’s not difficult for modern audiences to see themselves reflected in at least one character in any given Shakespeare production, even though they were written around the turn of the 17th century. How remarkable is that!
Viola, Sebastian and Duke from She’s the Man are all believable high schoolers in the mid-2000s, but they’re actually based on characters from Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night. Creating men and women who are able to slot into modern American football teams, or wield pistols instead of swords is no mean feat, but Shakespeare achieved it over and over again. His characters are beloved, despised, laughed at and most importantly remembered for their relatability.
For those with an interest in learning the English language more than reading its literature, Shakespeare is still important. This is because of his contributions to the development of words and phrases that are now used on a daily basis. There are quite a few dead white guys known as ‘the father of English’ in some way or other, and we don’t want to buy into that narrative. What we will say, however, is that Shakespeare did play a really important part in molding the language we speak today. If you’ve ever said ‘all of a sudden’, or spoken about jealousy as ‘the green-eyed monster’, then you have Shakespeare to thank. He even came up with whole new words – 422 of them, in fact, including bump, lonely and upstairs. That’s not to say we’d still be without words for these things if Shakespeare had never written. But the sheer number of new words and phrases he coined makes him a core figure in the development of our language.
For many modern actors, acting in the main role in a Shakespeare production is a career-defining and impressive achievement. The Globe Theatre, the Elizabethan playhouse for which he produced his plays, is still an icon of London’s rich cultural history.
Watching a Shakespeare play live on stage is an experience like no other. You’re sure to find productions of his plays nearby, wherever you live, but there’s nothing quite like an open-air production to really capture the original magic. If you enrol on an Oxford Scholastica course, you’ll get to watch a play performed live in the ruins of the ancient Oxford Castle and Prison, or you could opt for our London Scholastica courses to watch a play in the reconstruction of Shakespeare’s own Globe Theatre on the Southbank.
What are your writing aspirations?
If you’re an aspiring writer or interested in studying English, explore our Writing Summer School and English Language summer courses in Oxford. You’ll be immersed in the creative atmosphere of Oxford, a hub of inspiration for writers, and surrounded by like-minded students from around the world. Discover more about the Oxford Scholastica Academy!