William Shakespeare is possibly the worlds most famous and revered playwright and poet. His legacy is endless. Not that much is known about his private life and that is not what I’m here to discuss. I won’t be musing on whether other people write some of the scripts attributed to him, whether his sexuality was all it seemed or probing into his religious and political beliefs – I will just simply try to demonstrate why I think his legacy has lasted for hundreds of years after his death and is possibly stronger now than ever before.
Although his work has been pretty popular from his lifetime onwards, it wasn’t until the Victorians began their worship of him that he became the most performed playwright of all time – George Bernard Shaw labelling the worship “bardolatry”.
His legacy for me begins in the words – he wrote so beautifully, so dramatically and so clearly that even the most horrific of moments could be played with an elegance that his rhythm demands. He is also credited with bringing new words and new phrases into the English language – many of which we still use today. Without Shakespeare we wouldn’t say, amongst thousands of others, the following:
- Bated breath
- Cruel to be kind
- Foregone conclusion
- A tower of strength
- Wild-goose chase
- Eaten me out of house and home
- Too much of a good thing
All of the above phrases and words have been used by most of us at some time or another. Someone who brings quite so much to a language deserves a respect and demands attention – he will always be of fascination even as new words enter the language, it is unlikely that anyone will impact upon and change the daily conversation of our lives quite as much as William Shakespeare.
Many of his plays (Comedies, Tragedies & Histories) have stood the test of time, not merely as classics from their time but as relevant and as understanding of the human psyche as any modern play. Many roles he created demand a performance so great from an actor that few would dare to play them – and fewer still play them well. Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear and Titus Andronicus are some of the most famous plays of all time and are also some of the most compelling title characters from any play. Watching Hamlet as he vividly portrays both true and feigned madness – from overwhelming sorrow to seething rage – and explores themes of treachery, revenge, incest, and moral corruption is one of the most compelling and well constructed plays and characters of all time.
“To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them:” – Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1
His madness and almost modern illusions in A Midsummer Night’s Dream are thrilling audiences to this day and still raise questions that will never be answered for sure. The gentle humour of Cymbeline and the bounce and vividness of Twelfth Night is spellbinding. His Histories are no always seen as accurate but do give us some view into a public perception of a period in time, a time without cameras, television etc… his plays act as a guide to public perception. His creations show that his character development and need to entertain came foremost and that is one of the key reasons his works are so important today.
“Pleasure and action make the hours seem short.” – Othello, Act II, Scene 3
And then we come to his poetry which to me is a land so beautiful and wonderfully written that it can cheer you, move you and embrace you and even until today make you think about life, love and the lessons we can all learn everyday.
“Who will believe my verse in time to come,
If it were filled with your most high deserts?
Though yet heaven knows it is but as a tomb
Which hides your life, and shows not half your parts.
If I could write the beauty of your eyes,
And in fresh numbers number all your graces,
The age to come would say ‘This poet lies;
Such heavenly touches ne’er touched earthly faces.’
So should my papers, yellowed with their age,
Be scorned, like old men of less truth than tongue,
And your true rights be termed a poet’s rage
And stretched metre of an antique song:
But were some child of yours alive that time,
You should live twice, in it, and in my rhyme.” – Sonnet XVII.
Shakespeare questioned his legacy and life through his works on many occasions – often under the guise of some character or another and so I’ll leave the last words to him:
“No legacy is so rich as honesty.” All’s Well That Ends Well, Act III, Scene 5