“Hell is empty and all the devils are here.”
– William Shakespeare, The Tempest
My first exposure to William Shakespeare (that I can remember, at least) was reading Romeo & Juliet in the fourth grade. Seems a bit heavy for a 9 year-old, right? I made it through the first act — like my reading group and I had agreed to do — and came into class to find that the other two girls in my group had given up because the language was too hard.
Admittedly, I couldn’t grasp the language at that age, either. But I was still disappointed when we dropped the play from our reading list and moved on to another. I knew, despite not really knowing what was going on, that I liked the story of Romeo & Juliet.
Then I read the play again as a freshman in high school and did a full unit on it in my English class. The next year, we read Hamlet for class and the year after that, Othello. During senior year, we read Macbeth. And in between every class unit about the Bard, I read other plays, watched film adaptations, and learned about the man in my drama courses.
In college, I learned even more. I took two courses on Shakespeare and presented a paper on gender relations in Hamlet at the 2011 Undergraduate Shakespeare Conference at Clark University. I’ve written countless papers on his plays (even dragging comparisons to his work into a philosophy paper for my existentialism course). I’ve also compared his characters to characters in contemporary pop culture and generally shouted my feelings about Shakespeare and his works to anyone who will listen.
Most people think I’m crazy. A friend and co-worker at The New Hampshire used to rag on me constantly for my deep devotion to the works of Shakespeare. And every time I’d put an article in the arts section that was somehow related, I’d hear crap from everyone in the news room. I realize that most people think his work is antiquated and some people even believe he didn’t actually write any of his works. Sorry to say, but I don’t buy it. And I love Shakespeare because his works are still completely fucking relevant in a modern context.
The other night, AR and I watched Private Romeo, a film which sets the original script of Romeo & Juliet in an all-boys military academy. The adaptation is probably one of my favorites (of one of my least favorite of Shakespeare’s plays — not because Romeo & Juliet isn’t beautiful, but because I think it’s overdone and hardly represents his best work). It’s incredibly intimate and brings a sense of quiet confusion to a script that’s usually played with a lot of noise and drama. Then again, maybe I enjoyed it because of the ending (which I won’t give away).
I’ll be the first to admit that I romanticize Shakespeare’s works as much as the next person, but I also think that he brought into his plays universal themes of love, hatred, family, violence, death, mourning, and more. Most of my favorite films and books are either loosely based on Shakespearean plays or at the very least reference them. Structurally, his plays are easy to translate into any genre and thematically, his plays are easy to relate to across generations.
Furthermore, Shakespeare’s scripts delve very seriously into issues that are hot topics in today’s media. Gender, for example, is widely explored in almost every single one of his plays. Relationships between men and women drive the majority of Shakespeare’s plays — he deals with rape and violence against women in Titus Andronicus, with father-daughter relationships in King Lear, with gender confusion in comedies like The Twelfth Night, and with monsterism as associated with parental love and gendered manipulation in Macbeth. The paper I presented in 2011 dealt specifically with gender in Hamlet, and how the strength of men is often determined by the relative weakness of women, especially in literature.
In dealing with gender, Shakespeare also explores sexual freedom and validity. It’s important to note that women were not allowed on stage during the Renaissance — meaning Shakespeare’s plays were played by men, regardless of their content. Some of the characters in his plays experience feelings for people they believe to be of the same sex (or who truly are of the same sex); others fall into sexual relationships at young ages and attempt to sneak around in societies that won’t allow such ‘promiscuity’.
Shakespeare was and is incredibly progressive. Of course, there are serious problems presented in his works — race, specifically, is an issue that needs careful evaluation in light of the way Shakespeare presents it. But these problems enhance conversation and create a culture that is obsessed with Shakespeare — even if it doesn’t realize it.
Many of the foundations of pop culture trace back to his works, whether that’s immediately obvious or not. I love William Shakespeare because his works are literally timeless. And that’s incredible to me.