I’ve sporadically mentioned Shakespeare’s relevance in other posts, but I wanted to dive a little bit more into this. I feel like the Bard’s eternal relevance is frequently lauded, and I hint at this in my post summing up what I learned from my “Finding the Bard” project. But what about his work is relevant? And how is that even achievable?
Shakespeare is able to represent the human experience more fully, accurately, and complexly than any other writer I have ever read. This is not, of course, to say, that we all know what it’s like to be a Prince of Denmark whose father has been murdered our uncle. No more is it to say that we all have had the experience of being shipwrecked on an island with our Gandalf-esque father and creepy spirits. But we all know what it is to experience loss. To feel betrayed. To be disoriented. To be angry. To doubt ourselves. To doubt the people around us. And this is where the power of Shakespeare’s work lies.
The stories that he has given us are not about the events themselves that they describe. They are about 1) the humans experiencing them and 2) the feelings that the events elicit and 3) the questions that result from those feelings and events. Macbeth is not about a regicidal dictator cursed by a prophecy. It’s about Macbeth himself and his relationship to the question of fate versus choice. As You Like It isn’t about someone who has to go hide in a forest that has funny things happen to them. It’s about Rosalind, and it’s about what identity is and about whether or not anyone can ever actually truly know another person. This can help us understand why, for example, Rosalind is so relatable even though some of us may never have been near a forest in our lives.
The other thing that makes Shakespeare’s work so perpetually relevant is that he doesn’t preach or obsess about finding answers to the questions he asks. He trusts his audience enough that he doesn’t spoon feed us, and he doesn’t get bogged down in an agenda. This leaves his work more open to interpretation and reinvention. It’s the reason Henry V, for example, can be fairly produced as pro-war, anti-war, or any nuance in between – with all being equally valid and supportable. It’s the reason that characters like Iago from Othello can almost mean more to us today than would have even been possible 400 years ago.
I believe Shakespeare’s goal in all the writing he did was not to preach an opinion. Not to make money from it, and not even to tell a story. I think his goal was to represent the human experience – represent humanity – the best that he could on the page and stage. This, along with his unparalleled ability to tap into human emotion and get right at its heart, in my view, is one reason that he remains such a powerful figure in world literature more than 400 years after his death. And it’s why I can turn to his work again and again, no matter what I am feeling and what I have been going through, and find something that reflects my own humanity back at me and provides proof in black and white that my experience is not unique and that I am not alone in whatever it is I am feeling.