The Man in the Myth: Shakespeare's Legacy
“He was not of an age, but of all time!” spoke Ben Johnson, of his dear friend William Shakespeare, a mildly successful playwright, poet, and actor, upon his death (Johnson, 42.)Shakespeare’s plays changed the very foundation of playwriting, forever changing the theatre industry, as well as English literature itself.
Shakespeare was baptized April 26, 1564. He married Anne Hathaway on November 28, 1582, had his first daughter, Susanna, in 1583, and then twins in 1584. He most likely attended the grammar school in Stratford-Upon-Avon, his hometown. (Brittanica) His education would have consisted of learning Latin, and studying Classical historians, philosophers, and poets.(Britannica) Contrary to popular belief, he did not go on to university.
(Brittanica) Of him, his friend, Ben Johnson, said “[he had] small Latin, and less Greek” (Johnson 31). This is usually taken to mean just that Shakespeare had less formal education than other well-respected playwrights of the time, such as Christopher Marlowe. By 1592, Shakespeare was a well established as an actor and a playwright in London. He became part of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and wrote for them for most of his life. This group was the one responsible for the Globe Theatre opening in 1599.
None of his plays were published during his lifetime. They were performed, but not published in the script/book style we have today until the First Folio. Shakespeare is known to have written at least thirty-eight plays, and over 150 poems. He wrote tragedy and comedy equally and is particularly well known for his historical plays, bringing to life the long and often bloody history of England or its contemporaries. At least ten plays were written about past English kings, and many more were written about other popular conquerers–for instance, Antony and Cleopatra, or Julius Caesar. Before Shakespeare, theatre was much less focused on character-driven story.
From about 950-1300, known to some scholars as “The High Middle Ages”, theatre was far less prominent and centered around mostly religious themes, resulting from the heavy emphasis on, in particular, the Catholic religion in Europe. Plays were performed at religious festivals and on religious holidays. During the Late Middle ages, plays began to gain popularity among the upper classes as a show of decadence and entertainment through parody of their own lives. By the time Shakespeare began writing, theatre had begun to transform into something more of the people, rather than of the upper class, or solely of the clergy. Shakespeare himself helped speed along this transformation by writing his plays in the vernacular, and writing stories that would appeal to all men, no matter what socioeconomic standing they held. Shakespeare died at 52, on April 23, 1616, leaving behind a legacy that would not be fully realized until centuries later.
Despite his popularity during his lifetime, it was not until after his death that his influence began to make itself known. Seven years later, several of his colleagues put together an anthology of his great works, known as “the First Folio”. It was this collection, consisting of 18 never-before-printed works, that allowed Shakespeare’s plays to escape the fate of many of his colleagues’, and survive to later centuries, wherein they would be dissected, performed, adapted, in a million different ways, and influence all types of writing, from contemporary young adult fiction, to gothic poetry (Bayard). His legacy is so enduring that his plays have been adapted into films in the twentieth century. Kiss Me Kate, West Side Story, and Throne of Blood were all based off Shakespeare’s original plays, be it Romeo and Juliet (as in the case of West Side Story) or MacBeth (as in the case of Throne of Blood).(Marvel et al.
26)Shakespeare’s tales have transformed into timeless classics– new adaptations are being made, even today. A 2000 version of Hamlet reimagined Hamlet as the son of an extremely successful CEO, with companies in place of kingdoms. Warm Bodies, a 2013 zombie movies, provided another version of Romeo and Juliet, only with a human faction and zombie faction in place of the classic Montagues and Capulets; there was even an animated cartoon, about garden gnomes, called Gnomeo and Juliet, in 2011 (Coates). It goes even beyond adapting his plays. Major plot points of his works have become classic tropes of literature.
The “star-crossed lovers” from Romeo and Juliet, the cross-dressing female from “Twelfth Night” (a modern example can be seen in the 2006 “She’s the Man”), the tortured, betrayed son from Hamlet (Coates). What was, in his time, innovative and new, has become classic–a staple of literature, because Shakespeare’s plays have been adapted, reread, analyzed, performed so many times. Everyone who has been through high school knows the plot of Romeo and Juliet. Every theatre-goer knows the curse of “that Scottish play” (Macbeth). Shakespeare’s character-driven plays began a shift towards an emphasis on human nature. In the nineteenth century, as character analysis grew in importance to literary critics, Shakespeare became famed for his works, not just on the stage, but also on the page.
Critics were fascinated with the depth and complexity of the characters Shakespeare had created. (Marvel et al. 24) Shakespeare also placed equal importance on developing the character of secondary characters. Rather than having one-dimensional characters whose sole purpose in life, it seemed, were the interactions they had with the main characters, Shakespeare developed believable personalities and backgrounds for even the lowly. This encouraged later playwrights to do so as well; the fleshed-out characters added a new kind of richness to Shakespeare’s plays that others would attempt to emulate. (Long 6) His unique characters had the unintended effect of encouraging the idea of social equality, as well.
Theatre in his time was already changing, in that it was being marketed towards the common man in addition to nobles, and Shakespeare’s care with his lowly characters like beggars and merchants helped encourage the idea that said men were just as important to the story as the kings and heroes who headlined. (Long 6) Shakespeare also helped define American theater. As American theatre and literature developed, people cried out for a distinct identity. Ironically enough “England’s poet” provided a means for Americans to create that identity. The broad nature of Shakespeare’s plays make them easy to adapt, particularly as setting, to a Shakespeare play, is but a word.
Hamlet works just as well in a modern corporate setting as it does in sixteenth century Denmark. This made it possible for Americans to borrow Shakespeare’s words, while still making the performances American. (Jones 96-97) What was, in his time, innovative and new, has become classic–a staple of literature, because Shakespeare’s plays have been adapted, reread, analyzed, performed so many times. Everyone who has been through high school knows the plot of Romeo and Juliet. Every theatre-goer knows the curse of “that Scottish play” (Macbeth). Some quotes from his plays have become ingrained in, at least, American society, such that many do not even know where they come from.
They are almost our version of the “ancient Chinese proverb” that are known to every boy and girl, but very few ever realize whose words they are. For example, the phrase “star-crossed lovers”, “some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them”, “as luck would have it”, “conscience makes cowards of us all”, “devil incarnate”, “jealousy is the green-eyed monster”, “love is blind”, “kill with kindness”, to name but a few. Even some of the more light-hearted ones, such as “dead as a doornail”, “wild-goose chase”, and even “Knock! Knock! Who’s there?”. Shakespeare spun an entire category of jokes, the knock knock joke, by accident. That is just how important the man’s words are to our society.
(McAlpine) We are literally still finding new ways to interpret his plays. The first replica of the Globe Theatre was completed less than thirty years ago, which opened up the possibility for performing Shakespeare as he did, so long ago. The Globe theatre allows us to experience Shakespeare as his audiences did, when they first premiered. Doing so provides a new, or actually old, way of performing. J. Styan points out the many differences between contemporary performances of Shakespeare and traditional–lighting (daylight vs.
electric), staging (minimal, multiple scenes at one time), audience placement (the actor is surrounded), and even the way the actors act (in Shakespeare’s time, many actors would play Hamlet as though Hamlet knows he is playing Hamlet). Performing Shakespeare in the Globe Theatre allows contemporary directors to explore the effect of traditional problems, which can then be applied to contemporary plays. In some cases, it already has. Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton has its main characters alternate between narration and immersion, at times speaking directly to the audience and aware of the events about to occur. Whether Miranda was directly influenced by Shakespeare when he wrote Hamilton is of little consequence, because Miranda, as an already-established playwright, was already indirectly influenced by the man, by virtue of study.(Styan 185-186) Actually, in fact, the wildly successful Hamilton was influenced by Shakespeare, as Miranda alludes to Macbeth in one of his songs.
Beyond that, Hamilton and Miranda are successful for many of the same reason that Shakespeare is–and was, during his lifetime. Both took something distinctly of the people–Miranda’s being rap and hip hop and Shakespeare’s being the common tongue– and brought it to a new level–Miranda wrote his raps in verse, inspired by Shakespeare’s verse, and Shakespeare invented new words and such to get his message across. Both also focus on characters, and then tell a story. The characters are developed before the plot, because the characters are what drive the plot. (Major) In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare writes, “Be not afraid of greatness; some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.
” (TN, Act 2, Scene 5, 130-133) It’s debatable, when it comes to the man who wrote these age-old words, which category he falls under. William Shakespeare is widely considered to be one of the most brilliant and most influential writers in, not only English, but world history. But as to what made–makes–him great, no one can say. Perhaps he was born with the talent of prose, or perhaps he learned how to write with such grace from his schooling. Regardless of how he learned to be so, Shakespeare was undoubtedly brilliant, and it shows through his enduring works.
The world knows the heartbreak of Romeo and Juliet, the agony of Hamlet, the horror of MacBeth. The world uses his words every day. The world enjoys the character-driven stories that he made popular. The world reaps the benefits, every day, of the enormous impact William Shakespeare made on, not just the theater industry, but literature, history, pop culture, and the spoken word.