Is Shakespeare "everything to all men"? Is he re-interpreted by each generation to fit the beliefs and values of the day? Has Shakespeare been re-interpreted by each generation in order to confirm...

Is Shakespeare "everything to all men"? Is he re-interpreted by each generation to fit the beliefs and values of the day?

Has Shakespeare been re-interpreted by each generation in order to confirm that generation's beliefs and values? Is Shakespeare's work so central to English-speaking culture that as culture shifts, so does the interpretation of his plays?

If this is true, does that mean we interpret Shakespeare through a lens of multi-culturalism and liberal democracy? Are we guilty of forcing our ideas on his work?

And, if we remove our 'filter' from his work, what are we left with?

Expert Answers
playsthething eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I love this question; it gets at the heart of some ideas I've been thinking about a lot lately.  I think you have to stop and consider the validity of removing your cultural lens. First of all, I don't believe it can be done.  The only way we understand anything is through the combination of experiences we've had in our life (made up of our own direct experiences and our ancestors' direct experiences).  We don't see anything directly - it all is mediated through the artifacts and tools we've collected.  

So . . . Shakespeare (as with any piece of literature) is always interpreted through who we are at the present.  Of course that interpretation is shaped by what we want in our future and what has occurred in the past - the idea of prolepsis.  The beauty of Shakespeare's work is that it stands up to this constantly shifting basis of interpretation.  This is because of the universal themes, depth of character, and beautiful language.  Of course, for some, because of their experiences (note that I didn't say because of their culture), these things are not valued and therefore not a way "in" to the literature.  They may end up seeing Shakespeare's work more as a museum piece, as that is the lens through which they are gazing.

linda-allen eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This is a great question for the discussion board.

I think, yes, every generation can find something relevant for their own time in Shakespeare's plays. Back in 1990, when the Gulf War had not yet started but we were all anticipating it, Kenneth Branagh's "Henry V" had just come out on video. I had not seen it in the theaters, so I couldn't wait to rent the video. There is a scene in which the French herald comes final time to warn Henry that he'd better leave France or face certain death. The French outnumbered the English by nearly 5 to 1. The English had just trudged from Harfleur to Agincourt and were tired, hungry, and sick. But Henry refused to turn tail. He told the herald: We would not seek a battle as we are, yet as we are, we say we will not shun it" ("Henry V," III.5).

To me, that seemed to mirror our situation. We kept hearing how fierce Saddam's army was and how many millions of soldiers he had. Of course, we didn't know then that they were cowards who would surrender to news crews!

renkins44 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Tremendous question. We still read Shakespeare today because he was able to deftly articulate the universal human experiences. In other words, his literature explored the experiences and feelings that all humans, regardless of time or culture, have experienced.

In order to contrast what he has done, consider a top 20 song in the United States that tops out the charts with blinding speed and then, equally as fast, is forgotten. These songs typically aim to celebrate symbols of popular culture instead of substantial themes of human experience. Think of song that is still popular today from many years ago and you wil likely find just the opposite.

Thus is we remove a cultural "filter" from Shakespeare, the audience is left with stories about joy, sadness, death, jealousy, regret, love, pain, desire, etc. -- themes that all people from all times and cultures have either experienced or can relate to.

timbrady eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The thing I like most about Shakespeare is his use of language; he says things about human experience better than almost anyone else; and it is through language that we externalize and understand our experiences.  Coleridge speaks of poetry as "the best words in the best order," and I have always thought that this is what Shakespeare has done as well as, if not better than, anyone.  If he is all things to all men, it is because of his ability to provide us with the language that we can use to better speak of and express our own experiences. 

For example, Hamlet's "Oh that this too, too solid flesh" and "To be or not to be" soliloquys have always presented the experience of a despairing/depressed man in a way that is unsurpased by anyone.

Anyone could tell Hamlet's story; perhaps only Shakespeare could tell it in language so universal and memorable.

litteacher8 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

To a certain extent I think Shakespeare is reinterpreted with each generation. Every reader is going to read the plays in the context of his or her own life and society. However, we keep finding something relevant and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.