It's easy to forget that the world we see around us today hasn't always been like this. Rather, it was constructed and shaped by seemingly countless individuals: scientists and inventors, artists and philosophers, politicians and activists all had a hand in its creation, so many people that it's impossible to recall them all. Most of their names are now part of a tangle of threads hidden at the back of the tapestry that is the Western world.
However, a select few have had such a profound impact on our culture that their names remain woven at the forefront of the Western world's collective mind. Such figures include the physicist Albert Einstein (whose name is now synonymous with intelligent), the religious leader Jesus Christ (whose name is frequently used as an exclamation), and William Shakespeare.
William Shakespeare is a seventeenth-century English playwright and poet who is famous for his works such as Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet. Almost all students from English-speaking schools are made to study his works at some point or another.
However, despite being made to study him at school, few of us are actually told why his works are so important. This article will provide five reasons why Shakespeare's works are significant, and explain why the enigmatic playwright continues to dominate the imagination of the Western world even more than four centuries after his death.
1. Shakespeare's Influence on the English Language
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Few writers have had a bigger impact on the English language than Shakespeare. While a rare few may manage to come up with one or two words that make their way into our dictionaries, Shakespeare went above and beyond through his creation of more than one thousand words. Such words include "alligator," "cold-blooded," and "critic."
As though this isn't impressive enough, Shakespeare's contributions to English don't stop there — he also invented dozens of sayings.
Have you ever heard someone say 'all that glitters is not gold'? Well, that came from Shakespeare. How about 'the world is your oyster'? Also from Shakespeare. What about 'star-crossed lovers'? You guessed it: Shakespeare.
His influence on the English language is so extreme, that it's ensured his presence is felt even in the twenty-first century. After all, it's difficult to forget a writer who's embedded into the very language that we speak.
2. Powerful Depiction of Humanity
Shakespeare strips humanity to the bone through his exploration of the various experiences and emotions people undergo. He does this so compellingly that his works are still used by people today as a means of coping with their lives and making sense of the world.
His characters go through it all: they lose (and kill) their parents, fall head over heels in love, rule kingdoms and destroy kingdoms, just to name a few. Reading his works is a reminder that things could always be worse — at least you haven't fallen in love with a girl from your enemy's family, eloped with her, and then killed yourself because you thought she was dead (looking at you, Romeo).
They're also a reminder that you're not alone in your feelings. It's comforting to know that a seventeenth-century playwright wrote about the same overwhelming grief and devastating heartbreak that you're feeling today.
3. Historical Insights
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Shakespeare's works grant us valuable insights into early modern society and culture. They capture the attitudes of everyday people in a way that's difficult to find in history books.
Shakespeare's plays are generally divided into three categories: histories, comedies and tragedies. However, it's not just his histories that grants us these historical insights — his tragedies and comedies also provide information about contemporary attitudes and beliefs.
For example, the play Macbeth surrounds a Scottish general who's given a prophecy by three witches that he'll become king. The play follows the grim events that unfold as a result of this prophecy.
Macbeth reveals how plays and theater were used not just for entertainment purposes, but also as a political tool. In seventeenth-century England, King James I had many enemies who wanted him usurped. Unsurprisingly, this was something that greatly worried him. By implying that kings have a divine right to rule and showing what occurs when the natural hierarchy is disrupted, Shakespeare cleverly gains King James' favour.
Furthermore, Shakespeare's use of witches as the play's force of evil plays on the widespread fear of witches in the Renaissance period. Shakespeare used such fears to his advantage — much like how in the present day we enjoy watching horror films because they're scary, a play about witches would've had the same effect.
These are some insights from just one play, but there are many more to be taken from the rest of Shakespeare's works.
4. Clever wordplay and Puns
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Shakespeare's works are riddled with puns and witty one-liners. These serve as a way of entertaining audiences and are often indicators of a particular character's intellect and superiority. Including puns and one-liners is also a clever way of easing tension in some of Shakespeare's more serious plays.
For example, in the tragedy Hamlet, Hamlet's razor-sharp wit adds some moments of lightness to the play, easing the heavy atmosphere. His wit can be seen from the play's very first act when he refers to his uncle and stepfather Claudius as 'a little more than kin, and less than kind', which is simultaneously a reference to Claudius' relationship with himself, and his cruel nature.
5. The Range of His Works
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Shakespeare was a man with more than just one trick up his sleeve. The sheer range of his works has astounded readers for centuries. As mentioned, his plays are largely divided into three main genres: comedies, tragedies and histories.
However, even within these categories, no two plays are the same. Some tragedies include elements of the supernatural, while some comedies have vicious villains, and some histories include swoon-worthy love stories.
Shakespeare's talent doesn't stop at his extensive plays — he also wrote poems. His poetry includes two epics and more than 150 sonnets which tackle themes such as love, beauty and aging. If you want to get into reading his poems but are unsure where to start, I would recommend having a look at Sonnet 18 and Sonnet 130, both of which I would count as my personal favourites.
There you have it: five reasons why Shakespeare remains the most famous writer in English history. Of course, this only scrapes the surface of why Shakespeare is so popular, but hopefully, it has answered some of your questions about him, and has inspired you to check out some of Shakespeare's works!