I’m not a professor of Shakespeare, and I don’t even get to play one on TV, but I am an English major and a writer. As such, I would never underestimate the influence of the Bard. Even if you’re not into literature, here are my top reasons you should be reading/watching Shakespeare:
- It’s not highbrow. Sure the Early Modern English of Shakespeare is a bit tough for modern readers, but his original audiences were surprisingly diverse. Going to the theater wasn’t out of reach for the middle class, and I like to think Shakespeare actually played to the groundlings, the folks so poor they had to stand on the ground in front of the stage to watch the performance.
- Dirty jokes. You don’t have to dig too far to find them, either. Did you know that “nothing” was a common euphemism for lady parts back in the day? So give another thought to what Much Ado About Nothing was really all about. Also, if you ever have a chance to attend a performance in The Shakespeare Tavern or a place like it, they’ll help you find all of the dirty jokes with the help of gestures. (Cuckold horns, anyone?)
- He has the best insults. I’m kinda fond of “You scullion! You rampallian! You fustilarian!” from Henry IV, Part 2. When driving in traffic, I’ve found that “Thou art unfit for any place but hell” works well for those who cut you off. Maybe “Away ye three inch fool!” works if you’re being hit on by someone you don’t want to talk to. And, of course, there’s always the linguistically satisfying iambic pentameter of “You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things.” That’s an insult that just warms the heart, you know?
- All of the other words and phrases that Shakespeare gave us. Ever “wear your heart on your sleeve”? Maybe you’ve “been in a pickle”? We use Shakespearean words and phrases all the time. Maybe he coined them. Maybe he “borrowed” them. Either way, his works made such phrases popular, and, in doing so, Shakespeare has had a profound effect on the English language.
- Beloved characters. Who hasn’t experienced the idiotic young love of Romeo and Juliet? Or pined for the wrong person as happens frequently in Shakespeare’s comedies like Twelfth Night? (Love triangle, yo!) Or felt the jealousy of Iago or Cassius? Sure, we also have a Danish prince who’s lost his marbles, but even then we understand both the grief of losing a family member and also betrayal by those we love even if it doesn’t inspire us to stab someone through a tapestry or make a play within a play. Those same pains and desires that motivate you and me motivate Shakespeare’s characters.
- Universal themes. We writers keep going back to Shakespeare’s well because he wrote about love, ambition, family troubles, jealousy, power—all things that resonate with us today. Shakespeare, in turn, found inspiration in other writers, especially for his histories. It’s the circle of literature. **holds up stuffed lion**
Now, I do have one quibble with Shakespeare. Or maybe I have a quibble with how we interpret his works. Why do some folks keep insisting that
Romeo and Juliet is a romance? Y’all, it’s a tragedy. So when I, in great literary tradition, went to the Shakespearean well as inspiration for Bittersweet Creek, I decided to give Romeo and Juliet a different ending. I do hope the Bard didn’t mind too much. Maybe he’ll forgive me since I played with southern vernacular and added a few references to his other works as well.