Shakespeare is Everywhere
Is Shakespeare still relevant in this day in age? Have we, in our modern times with our on-demand television, and our iPhones, and our noses piercings, and our prescription shoes outgrown Shakespeare? If this were true, it would still be no small feat if Shakespeare’s influence had reigned for hundreds of years before being slain nobly in the go-go 2014s. But it’s not true. Shakespeare is alive and thriving and will likely continue to do so for hundreds of more years to come until a deadly disease kills almost the entirety of the human race, leaving only a few vestigial humans and a horde of vampiric, technolophobic zombies. Of course, the first thing the zombies will do is destroy all machinery and literature in a stand against the effects of civilization gone too far, so the few remaining humans will not get a chance to read Shakespeare’s works and pass them on to their immuno-superior offspring. However, by this point in our human history, Shakespeare will have become so ingrained in the human race that these post-apocalyptic humans will still find themselves asking “Wherefore art thou?” from balconies. They’ll have no idea why, but they’ll do it anyway because Shakespeare is so valued and repeated that he’s destined to become part of racial memory.
Shakespeare is an inescapable part of our pop-culture. In the Shakespeare in American Life article “What Classic American Television Series Included Shakespeare Episodes?” they go so far as to say that, “it might almost be said that it’s easier to list those long-running TV series that didn’t do a Shakespeare show!” Star Trek is big on Shakespeare-related plots. The Simpsons is another major one with over twenty Shakespeare themed episodes. And those are episodes that are entirely based around Shakespeare plots. This isn’t even counting all the throwaway lines and references in episodes with entirely different plots. My favorite book series, the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett has a myriad of Shakespeare references. The best examples I can think of are Wyrd Sisters (which has a lot of allusions to different plays, but majorly relies on Macbeth and Hamlet with, I would say, a healthy dash of King Lear) and Lords and Ladies (which mostly relies on A Midsummer Night’s Dream but has a lot of other references included one to Henry V).
The thing is: one doesn’t have to actually read Shakespeare to be aware of these references. Some of them people get; some of them go straight over people’s heads. When I read Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett, I immediately recognized the Macbeth reference when Magrat asked, after Granny Weatherwax said that something was coming: “Can you tell by the pricking of your thumbs?” (5). But I completely missed the reference to The Winter’s Tale in Lords and Ladies that occurred when Death said, in his traditional all-caps, that he liked to think of himself as “a picker up of unconsidered trifles” (40).
Because of this, it’s very hard to pin-point the actual moment when a person has their first brush with Shakespeare’s work. I know I can’t figure out when mine was. I know the cartoon Hey Arnold! did a Romeo and Juliet episode when I was a kid, but I’m sure I was already long aware of it by then. I think six-year-olds are aware of Romeo and Juliet. It would probably be an interesting experiment to set young kids down and see if they recognize quotes or plotlines. They’ll probably say, “oh yeah, I saw that on Sesame Street” or something and the rest of us will be just left to scratch out heads.
Shakespeare is so pervasive, because his influence is not just seen in our pop-culture, but in our language itself. Any time a person uses phrases like “in a nutshell” or “salad days” or “household word,” they are quoting Shakespeare whether they’re aware of it or not. Then there are all the familiar quotations that sometimes take the form of advice such as: “this above all: to thine own self be true” (1.3.78) from Hamlet. Sometimes they are not direct quotes, but adaptations, such as when a person would say that “there is a method to my madness,” which is another reference to Hamlet. The person trying to convince you to bear with their strange behavior may have no idea that they’re making a Shakespearean reference.
But even though Shakespeare has permeated our language and pop-culture, there remains the question: are people reading Shakespeare? Well, obviously some people are. His works figure prominently on required reading material on syllabi in both high school and college. His works are classics… and what’s that they say about classics? That they’re books that everyone praises but no one reads.
Of course, people often feel that they should read classics in the same way that they feel that they should eat their vegetables and exercise. It's good for you. However, it is so much easier to do the literary equivalent of camping out on the couch for a third of the day with a bag of something artificially cheese-flavored. So often people don’t read Shakespeare.
And it takes effort. Don’t get me wrong. Even when reading the works of Charles Dickens, who is an extremely accessible writer who was born a paltry 200 years ago: it takes a few chapters to get the feel of the language. Shakespeare lived more than double that length of time ago and spoke and wrote an English very different from our modern language. But still, I don’t think it’s as hard as people make it out to be. Once you get into it and get a feel for the language, it’s much easier. After all, you know so much of it already even if you don't realize it yet.
I think that's one of the things Shakespeare would appreciate beyond even the fact that college students are assigned to study his work as part of their curriculum. I think the fact that aspects of his work have so casually oozed their way into our daily lives is the real compliment. We don’t have to work Shakespeare into our lives. He’s already there: in our words, familiar phrases and entertainment. He’s become a fixture: and that’s an accomplishment few can claim. Not only that, but the fact that his work has inspired so many writers after him would certainly make him proud: even if they did write for Star Trek.
Shakespeare is worth knowing for the allusions alone. It’s very pleasing to successfully make an allusion to a famous work. It’s also nice to understand a reference that someone else made. In my first long, slightly insane sounding paragraph, I made a reference the 1954 Richard Matheson novel I Am Legend (and the films spawned from it). Will people still be making references to I Am Legend in 400 years? Possible. But it’s also very possible they won’t. But I’m confident that the Bard will keep on trucking long beyond that.
Pratchett, Terry. Lords and Ladies. HarperTorch, 1992. Print.
Pratchett, Terry. Wyrd Sisters. HarperTorch, 1980. Print.
Shakespeare in American Life. “What Classic American Television Series Included Shakespeare Episodes?” Folger Shakespeare Library. 5 May 2010.