illustrated portrait of English playwright and poet William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

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Why do we still study Shakespeare?

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We still study Shakespeare because his creations are considered some of the most expertly written and beautifully poetic works in the history of literature. In addition to the quality of his work, Shakespeare is revered for his ability to portray timeless themes of human experience that have continued to be relevant long after his death. His influence over Western culture, literature, and the English language has been so significant that it is important to have an understanding of Shakespeare to understand the modern world.

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Shakespeare is considered the greatest playwright in the world. This includes not just English-speaking countries, but everywhere. There are a number of reasons for this, and these explain why we keep studying "the bard."

Admittedly, Shakespeare's language can be a hurdle, but today, there are more and more tools to help understand what he is saying, and if you can get beyond the difficult wording, you can start to delight in his work.

Here are some reasons we keep studying him:

Characterization: Shakespeare seemed to intensely feel what his characters felt, whether they were good or evil. He created characters that are powerful because they seem so alive. Their struggles and emotions are completely heartfelt. They behave consistently, as if they are real people. They draw us in with their deeply felt desires.

Language: Shakespeare doesn't simply put flat words into his character's mouths. The words he uses are so memorable that they stick with us. He's never afraid of a pun or a metaphor. Juliet, for example, is not simply beautiful: she sparkles like a jewel against an ear.

Range of plays: Not every play Shakespeare wrote was a masterpiece, but he wrote a large body of plays, and very many of them are masterpieces. He excelled at both comedy and tragedy and did so numerous times. The consistency of his excellence is stunning.

Influence on literary culture: Allusions to Shakespeare show up everywhere, from popular writers like Agatha Christie and P.G. Wodehouse to more literary writers like Aldous Huxley and Tom Stoppard. It's good to study Shakespeare because he is a window into so many writers after him.

Exciting plots: Shakespeare is seldom boring: he brings us witches, ghosts, fairies, laughter, fighting, horror, romance, and bloodshed.

For myself, I have grown to love Shakespeare more and more because he is a humane writer with a moral compass. He understands what it is to be the underdog, the importance of mercy in people with power, and what suffering is. He always stands up for decent values. To me, these are perhaps the most important reasons to study him.

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The study of Shakespeare is still important for many reasons. One reason is that Shakespeare has had a vast influence on the English language and is the source of many idioms and metaphors that are still widely used today, such as "all that glitters is not gold" from The Merchant of Venice. To hear idioms such as this one in its original context is to understand something about the development and evolution of English.

The themes of Shakespeare's plays still resonate today because they speak to the human condition. For example, if we read Hamlet as a meditation on manhood or Macbeth as a look at the risks of unchecked ambition, it enables us to look at the modern world and perhaps better understand ourselves, others, and our shared humanity. Love relationships today are often as complicated as those in The Taming of the Shrew, Twelfth Night, and Romeo and Juliet. Some families are dysfunctional as they are in King Lear. Many people struggle with uncertainty about life, death, and the afterlife as Hamlet does. 

The fact that Shakespeare's works are still performed all over the world, both translated into dozens of world languages and in English, is evidence that his work is of global interest, and therefore an art form worthy of study in schools.

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Shakespeare’s works are timeless.  After four hundred years, people still read, study, and perform his plays and poetry.  Almost anyone can quote from several of his works.  The reason that people know them is because they have been a part of our culture constantly since they were published.

It is important to study Shakespeare because it is a part of popular culture.  Popular culture refers to movies, television, and songs.  Have you heard Taylor Swift’s song “Love Story” on the radio, which references Romeo and Juliet?  Does your city have Shakespeare in the Park in the summer?  Did you know that the band in the Harry Potter series is called the Weird Sisters, after the characters in Macbeth?  I’ll bet you have heard comparisons of one’s love “to a summer’s day.”  Shakespeare is everywhere.  If you don’t study Shakespeare, you will miss these references.  You won’t enjoy them or appreciate them, and you won’t understand them.

The greatest reason to study Shakespeare is that there is a reason it is still popular.  The stories’ themes are timeless.   These are tales of young love, madness, family drama, aging, ambition, murder, and intrigue.  Shakespeare’s poetry is clever and beautiful.  His plays cover multiple genres.  When you read and study the plays, you have a greater appreciation for them.  There are so many works, and they have so much to offer.

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