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Author Thomas C. Foster titled one of his chapters in How to Read Literature Like a Professor, "When in doubt, it is from Shakespeare..." This exemplifies how influential Shakespeare's works are on all writers who proceeded the bard.
Shakespeare's works are appealing for many reasons but if we have to pare it down to five of the best qualities of his work, then the list may look something like this:
1. Universality of themes
Shakepeare's works deal with a variety of themes from forbidden love in his sonnets to jealousy in Macbeth to farcical events in his comedies. Shakespeare has the ability to capture and present these themes in terms that are relatable to the reader. A prime example of this is the way Shakespeare presents love in Romeo and Juliet. The characters are experiencing "love" for the first time. Almost every reader can relate to the feelings of new or burgeoning love and how one may behave irrationally because of this love. Shakespeare is careful not to judge young love, but present the theme in such a way that the reader can understand his point without feeling shameful or judged. Romeo and Juliet make many mistakes in pursuit of their passion for one another, and as a result, both families suffer.
A second example of the universality of themes in Shakespeare's works is Hamlet. Though most readers are not Danish princes who see their father's ghost and seek to avenge his murder, the reader can relate to Hamlet's feelings of loss, loneliness, and mistrust. As Hamlet seeks revenge on his Uncle Claudius, he learns that he is alone in his pursuits and in turn pushes away anyone that he feels he cannot trust or will not help him. Again, Hamlet's situation is extreme, but most readers can relate to the themes of loneliness, loss, and mistrust at some point in their lives.
2. Character development
Shakespeare's characters are unique because they carefully crafted to tell a story. From minor characters like Flavius and Marullus to protagonists such as Beatrice and Benedict, Shakespeare takes great care in developing each character's role and personality in the text. Every character in a play has a function and purpose. Consider the role of Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet. He is a "mercurial" character and seems more like a sidekick than a main character, but his character universal; the readers know of or have a "Mercutio" in their lives. Mercutio also plays an important role in the text because his death is the impetus for Tybalt's murder at Romeo's hands. This causes Romeo to leave Verona and ultimately leads the star crossed lovers down the road to their deaths.
3. Writing for the audience
Shakespeare is an author who is aware of his audience. This may be because he was a playwright and not a novelist, but I have a feeling it has more to do with his understanding of people in general.
If you take a look at Shakespeare's sonnets, you can see how well he understands his audience. Granted these sonnets are dedicated to two specific people: the young man and the dark lady, but they are prime examples of Shakespeare's understanding of the reader. When he writes to the young man, he captures the vibrancy of young love and of true love. Unlike the Petrarchan sonnets whose definition of love is more about the aesthetic appeal between a man and woman, Shakespeare defines love as something that lives beyond time and age. A prime of this is Sonnet 116:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments.Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
In this sonnet, Shakespeare personifies love as something that understands that looks fade with time and that as love develops over time it deepens rather than wanes.
When he writes to the dark lady, he contrasts the feelings of lust and love. He is honest about how love is not founded in physical beauty because beauty fades and so does lust. He also acknowledges the shame that he feels when lusting after his dark lady rather than the joy he feels when he expresses love. This is exemplified in Sonnet 124:
The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action: and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight;
Past reason hunted; and no sooner had,
Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait,
On purpose laid to make the taker mad.
Mad in pursuit and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.
4. Use of language
Shakespeare's ability to use figurative language, tone, and rhetorical devices are unmatched by most writers. He consistently creates similes, metaphors, puns, and other devices to enhance the overall meaning of his texts. A prime example of this is the use of language in the play Julius Caesar. Whether he is using rhetorical devices in Antony's funeral speech or Cassius' use of imager to vilify Caesar, you cannot help but be enthralled by the passion of the characters. Antony's funeral speech is included below. As you read, note his use of repetition of lines, verbal irony, and imagery.
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar.The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer'd it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest--
For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all, all honourable men--
Come I to speak in Caesar's funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
You all did see that on the Lupercal
I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And, sure, he is an honourable man.
I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.
You all did love him once, not without cause:
What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?
O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason.
Bear with me; My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me.
5. Variety of Texts
It is not common to read an author's who writes across such a broad spectrum. Shakespeare wrote poetry and plays that covered myriad topics: jealousy, egotism, finding love, losing love, familial love, loyalty, loss, power, lust, and hatred. His plays are categorized as comedic, tragic, historical, and didactic. This may be an attempt to appeal to a larger audience (and make money), or may reflect an uncanny ability to know his audience and a deep understanding of his society and his world. He knew that people are multi-faceted and his works reflect that knowledge. You cannot simply read one Shakespearean text and believe you understand the bard. This is why Shakespeare is so widely read and as Foster believes, "When in doubt, its from Shakespeare..." because his texts are so influential on many levels and on many genres.
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