“He was not of an age, but for all time!”
– Ben Jonson
It’s interesting to wonder why we’re all here discussing the death anniversary of a man who died 400 years ago, who was born more than 450 years ago and who was a playwright in London. He wasn’t by far the first playwright, nor was he the only playwright at the time, and he didn’t appear to do anything that differently than any one else at the time. But is this really the case?
Why are we still talking about Shakespeare and his plays, what makes him so fascinating to us? It is of course because his legacy of works is so incredible it’s hard not to admire the man who wrote them. The themes, the stories, the execution of these grand ideas about tragedy, love, fate, comedy, and the mystical are astonishing and timeless. You only have to see at how frequently he’s been remixed and redone in multiple forms over the centuries, across continents, everything from books to films to ballets.
He’s lasted because his words have been cemented in culture and every time you ‘break the ice’ or go on a ‘wild goose chase’ and claim ‘love is blind’ you are reminding the world of Shakespeare and keeping his legacy alive. The complexity of his characters and the creativity and drama of his plays are worth preserving and anyone who claims he’s stuffy and old just haven’t found the right way to experience his work or they just don’t realise how much of our culture revolves around Shakespeare and how he sneaks into everything we do, say, and see.
A session I went to at the Newcastle Writers’ Festival this year asked the question What Makes Shakespeare Special? The speaker broke down the numbers and tried to work out why he is so special. Looking at the number of plays written compared with his contemporaries Shakespeare contributed to and produced around 40. Is it his play count that makes him last? With others like Thomas Haywood claiming he wrote 220 plays then the answer’s no. Was it his command of the English language? At the time a farm labourer had a vocabulary of 300 words, and educated and literate person had 3-4000, Shakespeare had a vocabulary of 15000 words. As this session made mention, the Old Testament has 5600 words, and Milton has 8000.
As impressive as 15000 is, this does include each variation of word eg. cry, cries, cried. So does that count? Compared to other playwrights like Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson he seems to use more words, but he also had more plays. The argument can be made that proportionately he didn’t, if they wrote more plays they too would have more words.
Shakespeare vocabulary is average at best, so if it isn’t the words what is it? Something the speaker said that resonated with me was that it’s “what [Shakespeare] does with the words rather than any exceptional words”. Shakespeare uses familiar words but uses them to maximum effort. What had the greatest effect on a play was that these simple words contained so much meaning. An example used was in Twelfth Night: A line spoken by Sir Andrew Aguecheek is “I was adored once too.” This is a simple line but it opens up so much about Aguecheek as a character. It’s impactful, that is what makes Shakespeare special and why he’s lasted. He uses his words carefully and with intent. Even in things like his puns show that words were chosen carefully that bring out character and meaning to the greatest effect.
Shakespeare is also more varied, he wrote comedies, tragedies and histories. He covered a lot and explored so many topics and relatable themes. Even if you weren’t a Danish prince you could understand Hamlet’s struggle, and experience the drama in Taming of the Shrew. Every modern adaptation of a play shows these are lasting and still relevant issues that people face.
Shakespeare is special because of characters. This was deduced at this session and I agree. The flawed, complex characters are what make Shakespeare so endearing. He created the most unusual and most representative characters that people can relate to. His characters make grand speeches, there’s satire and chit chat, they’re frank and confessional but they can be rounded and real. There’s a great mixture. As the speaker noted, it isn’t about the high drama, it’s about ordinary interchanges.
I think it will be a long time before Shakespeare is forgotten about. I think as long as people keep reinventing his works, retelling his words, and drawing upon him for inspiration then Shakespeare will live on. He’s special in his unremarkableness in a way. He was just a playwright from Stratford and he became a superstar through history. He used his words to tell captivating plays and that’s it. Somehow in this simple act that dozens others were doing alongside him he’s become a historical figure of grand standing. It’s unexplainable and remarkable and something that may continue to mystify.
For 400 years since his death Shakespeare has continued to live on, and I have no doubt he will do so for centuries to become.
I didn’t reference anything really in this aside from that session but I’ve included a few links below, some that look at this more academically than I did, including another quick (4 minute) radio interview. They’re all interesting but I would have gone on forever trying to discuss it all and I quite liked the NWF session so it was my key focus. This is also my last Shakespeare post and the finale to my month long dedication. Thank you for going on this month long journey of Shakespeare with me. It was fun and informative for me and I hope it was for you as well. Or, if you blacklisted my blog for the past 30 days I hope you’ll come back come 1 May :D.
Links and Bits