Shakespeare’s 400 Year Relevance

A babel of chatter has erupted to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Most is complimentary but some of the sounds are harsh, shrill even, spewing outrage at the attention given to a writer so passed over by the social changes and technological discourse that seem to have captured the prize of relevance in our times. His language is archaic; he lacks contemporary sensitivities; he belongs to a monarchical system supplanted long ago by the age of the common man.

But so what if they have a point? If they do, does that prove his plays are actually irrelevant in today’s world? The box office replies with a thunderous no. Today his works are performed constantly and to enthusiastic audiences. Something profoundly human is going on here that won’t die. Certainly it hasn’t in the language we speak.

Scholars have estimated that at least seventeen hundred words we use now have come to us via the Bard. How could we express contemporary thoughts implicit in words such as academe, addiction, blood-stained, compromise, drugged, jaded, laughable, obscene, summit, torture, zany, without his writings, unless other words were conceived.

Besides, a prodigious number of his phrases are so noticeable in our speech that some have crossed the border into the land of the cliche. Take for example just a few;

“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”

“The time is out of joint”

“For the apparel oft proclaims the man”

“Neither a borrower nor a lender be”

“It is a custom more honoured in the breach than in the observance”

“the law’s delay”

“Get thee to a nunnery”

“To be, or not to be, that is the question”

“trippingly off the tongue”

“How absolute the the knave is”

“”Alas poor Yorrick, I knew him Horatio”

“Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo”

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”

“If music be the food of love, play on”

“The quality of mercy is not strained”

“O brave new world”

“sea change”

“Beware the ides of March”

“Friends, Romans, countrymen. lend me your ears”

“Yon Cassius hath a lean and hungry look – the same Cassius appears in #tortoiseinasia, a historical novel written by yours truly

“Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer”

“green-eyed jealousy”

“The lady doth protest too much, methinks”

Of course the fact is that, no matter how influential this enrichment of our vocabulary and idiom may be, its provenance has largely slipped into the realm of academe, escaping the awareness of most of us.

But what has not evaded our attention, and cannot, is the Avon treasure’s ability to capture human nature and give it a dramatic presence with deathless language that stirs our emotions every time we attend a performance.

Our nature hasn’t changed in the last 400 years. Evolution dawdles too much for that. The foundation of what gets us riled up, saddens us, makes us laugh, and enlivens our sense of romantic love is the same, absolutely the same as it was four centuries ago.

All of this, and more, is brilliantly brought out in Iago’s wicked manipulation of a gullible husband prone to jealousy, the traduced innocence of Desdemona and Hermione, the tragic love of Romeo and Juliet, the charming buffoonery of Falstaff, Sir Toby, and Bottom with his rude mechanicals, the twisted nastiness of Edmund and the atavistic howl of a bereaved father, the greed of his eldest daughters, the indecision and self-loathing of Hamlet, and his rage, the hatred that drives Laertes, the evil depths of the Macbeths, the vengefulness of Macduff, the happy escapism of Oberon and Puck, the mocking of Malvolio’s puritanism, the metaphysics and reflective philosophy of Prospero, the populism of Mark Antony.

These are all issues alive, front and centre, in our contemporary world. And so’s the beat of humanism in the Renaissance poet’s heart. What could be more apposite today than Hamlet’s blurting out (even though he was too depressed at the time to feel it)

“What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god, the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals.”

That’s modern. It captures the spirit of our age, or at least the part that’s not cynical.

So here’s a toast to the relevance of the immortal Bard on the 400th anniversary of his earthly death. May he live another 400 years, at least.