There’s no getting around it. Whenever the two inevitable words ‘William Shakespeare’ are mentioned in high school English classes around the world, the pimple-faced groans that follow can usually be heard from two towns over.
I guess this is a reaction to be expected as just the name alone is synonymous with flowery poetry, codpieces and ‘ye olde’ thespian over-acting. Even Robin Williams in the film Dead Poets Society compares the idea of looking forward to studying Shakespeare to ‘looking forward to root canal work.’ Yet somehow, the guy remains atop pretty much every English literature syllabus around the world and will probably stay there for years to come. Surely Will must’ve done something right?
The reason why studying Shakespeare is still relevant, even in our 21st century society, is not because we all speak in verse and couplets or still sport frills around our necks, rather, it’s because the ideas and characters that make up his canon are still very much universal. To find the fun, intrigue and relevance in Shakespeare’s work, one really doesn’t have to look far. Just dig beneath those immortal words and you’ll unearth all the complexity, humour, darkness and intrigue that Shakespeare is really all about.
OK, it can’t be denied that the ‘olde-school’ language is definitely not an easy thing for kids, or even adults, to grasp. Hell, I still struggle with it. However it’s time we moved past all the ‘hithers’ and ‘thithers’ and enjoyed these classic pieces of literature for what they are. At their core, the Bard’s stories are timeless tales of revenge, betrayal, incest, blood, love and lust: a teenager’s bread and butter, really. It won’t take long for one of these jaded high school students to finally realize that Bill’s back-catalogue is a lot racier than anything Underbelly has cooked up so far.
In any discussion of Shakespeare, it’s hard to get away from talking about his use of ‘soliloquy,’ another term that’s bound to get your average English student dry reaching on cue. Derived from two Latin words ‘solus’ and ‘loqui’ meaning ‘alone’ and ‘to speak,’ the soliloquy is a theatrical device that’s crucial to any analysis of Shakespeare. Soliloquies give key characters a chance to speak to the audience directly, releasing their inner frustrations, fears and desires in an emotional torrent of carefully constructed prose. Just think of them as a kind of 17th century oratory blog. In story worlds that are often built around lies and mistrust, soliloquies provide the audience with cold hard, truths about character motives and events. This interaction, as a result, brings the audience into the drama as active participants or players. When Othello’s two-faced Iago plots and schemes against the moor, Othello, we do want to follow him and see if his plans will reach their Machiavellian potential. Shakespeare’s soliloquies also give actors around the world a chance to really stretch their dramatic wings, as these orations are famous for utilizing the entire gamut of human emotion. Indeed, many of these soliloquies have even entered our common vernacular. As Hamlet ponders suicide in ‘to be or not to be’ and Juliet longingly wonders ‘wherefore art thou, Romeo?’ Shakespeare enters our own conflicted hearts and minds to expose the root of all our collective inadequacies. Clearly, he wasn’t kidding around when he said ‘all the world’s a stage’ as we do see ourselves within his characters, still grappling to understand broader concepts such as life, love and beauty.
Shakespeare’s work is perhaps most relevant when venturing into the seedy world that is modern day politics. Just replace the pomp and pageantry of the royal court with the slick suits of the corporate world and the similarities become striking. When Julia Gillard took over from Kevin Rudd in 2010, it was hard not to think of the ‘backstabbing’ relationship between Brutus and Caesar in Julius Caesar. Your could almost hear little Kevin murmur ‘et tu, Julia?’ in the halls of Parliament as the axe began to fall over his ‘Kevin 07’ government. One could even go further and compare the destructive and villainous Richard III to a certain recent American ex-president with Dick Cheney playing alongside as the loyal but naïve Buckingham. After Obama dethroned Bush in 2008, it was estimated that Bush left 11 trillion dollars of national debt to clean up and a myriad of recession problems: sounds like a pretty big ‘winter of discontent,’ to me. Like many modern politicians, Shakespeare’s villains craftily use language and wit to mask their true intentions, manipulating everyone around them. In the modern spectrum, politicians wear sharp suits and create glamorous campaign slogans for themselves so they are able to, as Lady Macbeth says, ‘look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t.’ Even Julius Caeser’s Mark Antony was able to instantly convert a rabble of naive haters into devoted followers with only a few words and a ‘lend of their ears.’ Evidently, language can be deadly when controlled by those who are merely chasing power and dominance. It is this destructive power that is at stake in much of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Politics change but power and its corrosive effects on an individual stay the same and this is the point Shakespeare is making. The more power we gain the more consumed we are by it, as the higher we climb in society, the more we have to lose.
Although the majority of Shakespeare’s works is largely driven by man-power, that shouldn’t suggest there isn’t something for the ladies as well. Take Lady Macbeth for instance, one of the most fascinating characters in all of English literature. While a lot of Shakespeare’s women are often sidelined to whingeing or pining melodramatically in the background, Lady Macbeth remains a commanding presence in the foreground, until her conscience gets the better of her in Act V. Dominating out the front and whipping her man into line with more authority than Uma Thurman even had in the Kill Bill films, Lady Macbeth is the arse-kicking embodiment of female dominance and lust for power. Although this may have raised a few eyebrows in the male-dominated 1611, by today’s standards, this just makes her all the more attractive as a character. When she shouts ‘unsex me here!’ to the spirits, you better believe she means it, ridding herself of all her feminine qualities and starting to embrace all her inner darkness. Who knows if Macbeth would’ve even had the balls to go though the crime if his Mrs wasn’t waiting in the shadows, poking fun at his masculinity? Next time your partner incessantly nags you to take out the bins, just thank your lucky stars that they aren’t nagging you to overthrow the King of Scotland, which is exactly what poor Macbeth has to deal with alongside his own ‘vaulting ambition’ for power. But they still make a cute couple, like an Elizabethan Bonny and Clyde.
In an age where language has become increasingly more ‘bite-sized’ due to the rise in technology and social media, it’s astonishing and refreshing that Shakespeare’s works are still being studied and performed. They stand as a shining beacon that reminds us that the English language needs to be embraced and enjoyed as something more than a mere communicative tool. I’m not sure what the Bard would’ve made of things like Twitter and Facebook but one thing seems certain. When this ‘mortal coil’ of everyday existence begins to overwhelm us, Shakespeare’s plays remind us that the world will always be a deeply complex place ‘tomorrow and tomorrow,’