Relevance of Shakespeare Today
The relevance of Shakespeare is, in my opinion, unquestionable, even in contemporary times. Not only is his contribution to the English language immense in its proportions, but also enduring. Even today, William Shakespeare is a household name the world over. He is quite literally, the figure-head of English literature, even to the average layman. Innumerable versions of his immortal works are seen again and again in our films, plays and even our writing. His simple yet deep concepts have stood the test of time and are still as insightful as they were in his day.
Over the years, there have been several adaptations both on stage and in film of Shakespearean works. His plays have inspired successful Hollywood films such 10 Things I Hate About You, based on Taming of the Shrew. The Indian film industry too has drawn heavily on Shakespeare as seen in movies like Angoor, where the plot is drawn almost entirely from A Comedy of Errors and Omkara, an adaptation of Othello. One of his most well-known plays, Romeo and Juliet, has inspired scores of movies such as Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet, and the more recent Ishaqzaade.
To add to this, there have been countless stage productions of his plays. His works continue to captivate audiences to this day. His most popular plays are still a source of ideas to filmmakers in need of a muse. Although it has been said that his plots were repetitive and they are viewed as cliched and overdone from today’s standpoint, the fact remains that these very stories are what draw audiences time after time. A pioneer in his art, he flouted all theatrical conventions of his time and in doing so, altered the very structure of drama.
Critics have noted his disregard for Aristotle’s rules regarding literary unities, but in the words of Pope, “To judge of Shakespeare by Aristotle’s rules, is like trying a man by the laws of one country who acted under those of another”. Pope, in the Preface to his six-folio edition of the works of Shakespeare also says, “Shakespeare is not so much an imitator, as an instrument of nature”. This, undoubtedly, was a response to the accusations of several scholars that all of Shakespeare’s work was, in fact, indebted to Christopher Marlowe.
They even went as far as to attribute all of the innovations and dramatic techniques that first appeared in Shakespeare’s writing to Marlowe. Despite such harsh criticism and vilification, the works of Shakespeare are today some of the most celebrated in English literature. Shakespeare’s approach to writing plays revolutionized Elizabethan theatre. Such forwardness of thought and modernity of outlook was previously unseen in his day and age. He addressed contentious subjects that his contemporaries had hitherto not considered.
He started the trend of writing in blank verse, which transformed all preceding dramatic norms. He used language according to his own fashion, coining words and expressions that have today become so commonplace, that they seem to have been part of the very idiom of language. To this day, expressions such as ‘too much of a good thing’ (As You Like It), ‘in my mind’s eye’ (Hamlet), ‘it was Greek to me’ (Julius Caesar), ‘break the ice’ (The Taming of the Shrew) and ‘bated breath’ (The Merchant of Venice) are used in everyday speech and writing.
Shakespearean quotes such as “To be, or not to be: that is the question” (Hamlet – Act III, Scene I) and “This above all: to thine own self be true” (Hamlet – Act I, Scene III) have passed into standard usage. His plays were written keeping in mind the tastes and preferences of the Elizabethan audiences. He wrote sonnets to appease his patrons and keep a stable income, which enabled him to further his career as a playwright. Not only did his writing have to appeal to the nobles, but also to the commoners, the “groundlings”.
Accepting the challenge, Shakespeare incorporated into his writing not only grandiose depictions of scenes of historical importance, but also earthy, rustic humour in order to please the masses. The themes he dealt with, although in accordance with a particular setting, were universal and easy to relate to irrespective of social class or position. There are few others who hold such widespread acclaim as William Shakespeare. His writing has influenced several writers through the ages, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, John Steinbeck, Aldous Huxley, William Faulkner and Pearl S Buck, to name a few.
A number of writers have quoted Shakespeare in their writing or drawn their titles from his works. Thomas Hardy chose Under the Greenwood Tree as the title for one of his novels, alluding to the following lines from As You Like It: “Under the green wood tree / Who loves to lie with me / And turn his merry note / Unto the sweet bird’s throat. ” From King John’s definition of life: “Life is as tedious as a twice told tale / Vexing the dull air of a drowsy man. The title, Twice Told Tales was taken by both, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Charles Dickens. Aldous Huxley derived the title of his science fiction Brave New World from The Tempest: “O, wonder! / How many goodly creatures are there here! / How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world / That hath such people in it. ” Pearl S Buck named her collected works Words of Love, which was taken from King Lear: “And your large speeches may your deeds approve / That good effects may spring from words of love. John Steinbeck drew the title of his novel The Winter of Our Discontent from the soliloquy of Richard III: “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this son of York. ” The title of William Faulkner’s novel The Sound and the Fury is taken from the soliloquy of Macbeth: “It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing. ” The astute quality of Shakespeare’s plots is highlighted by the depth of the characterization.
Shakespeare’s portrayal of both minor as well as major characters in all of his plays is intricate and inclusive. Few writers have been able to provide such consistent renderings in their works. Such detailed development in terms of plot and character has so far not been rivalled. Despite new advances, Shakespeare’s colossal role in the progression of English literature remains unparalleled till date. In particular, it was Shakespeare’s ability to effortlessly mingle comedy with tragedy that led to his fame, and what makes his works invaluable even today.
In the Preface to Dr. Johnson’s edition of Shakespeare (1765), he writes, “This is the praise of Shakespeare, that his drama is the mirror of life; that he who has mazed his imagination in following the phantoms which other writers raise up before him, may here be cured of his delirious ecstasies by reading human sentiments in human language; by scenes from which a hermit may estimate the transactions of the world, and a confessor predict the progress of the passions. I thereby conclude by once again affirming the relevance of Shakespeare in contemporary times as is plainly seen by the vast influence his work has had on the advancement of the English language and the course of development of English literature.