Daisy Wallis | Deputy Editor | Wednesday 20 July 2016 | GMT 16:00 | firstname.lastname@example.org
As an English Literature student, I have studied Shakespearean plays and sonnets for the majority of my school life. But is this 16th century playwright still relevant in the 21st century? Having studied Shakespeare at A Level, GCSE and even younger, it is simply impossible to count the number of times I have heard my peers complain about constantly reading and analysing the works of William Shakespeare. The elaborate plots, unpronounceable names and Shakespearean language are just some of the complaints that I have heard over the years about reading his plays. Being a book lover since I was little, I find it hard to dismiss such classic literature, but the fact remains: for how long can English Literature studies be based on the work of a playwright that died just over 400 years ago?
But first let’s delve into the life of William Shakespeare. Ambiguity has surrounded Shakespeare’s life and so today we have little knowledge but from records and marriage certificates. Born to an opulent glove maker and the daughter of a wealthy farmer, Shakespeare was one of eight children and studied typical 16th century subjects such as Latin. As a child, Shakespeare’s father John faced severe financial difficulties and as a result lost much of the Shakespeare wealth as well as his wife’s inheritance.
As Shakespeare became more prominent in 16th century society, he was able to become more affluent and by his death in 1616 had accumulated large properties and substantial pieces of land across London. In the late 16th century, Shakespeare’s plays grew in significance offering a much needed break for much of English society in the times of plague and disease. Inspired by the travelling troupes of performers as a child in Stratford, Shakespeare’s comedies and dramas sparked an interest in theatre for generations and even in the English court, performing at the Royal Court with the King’s Men performance company.
The life of Shakespeare, although somewhat vague, was clearly an admirable one. After watching his family suffer financially from a young age, Shakespeare was able to accumulate much wealth by the time of his death despite his upbringing. So surely such a story of ambition and drive can be applied to modern day? Of course I would imagine the vast majority of readers have probably not experienced the same hardships of those in the 16th century, but, the financial difficulties suffered by Shakespeare’s family are a universal hardship that I would imagine – especially in today’s economic climate – the vast majority of you would have or will experience. As a result, it is clear that there are issues and hardships of 16th century citizens that can still be empathised with today. Surely we can still empathise with such a playwright, especially as we too have witnessed such economic turmoil as the recession of 2008 and the economic trouble that we have since faced since the Brexit result last month.
It is not just how far we can empathise with the playwright, but also the degree in which Shakespeare’s plays can still be enjoyed and favoured by many today. Last year, I was lucky enough to be accepted into a summer school at the University of Cambridge where I spent a week immersing myself in classic literature from medieval poetry to Shakespeare’s Richard II. Having only read and studied his comedies in great depth at school, I was excited and intrigued to delve into one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragic histories.
I was also lucky enough to watch Richard II performed at the Globe Theatre in London. Watching a Shakespearean play in a theatre in the design of the original Elizabethan theatre was truly awe-inspiring. Whilst I was standing in the audience, watching the actors perform in the same language the play was originally written in; I was shocked to learn that the open theatre allowed for the noises of central London to drift around the theatre. It was truly bizarre to be listening to a Shakespearean play and to then suddenly hear a helicopter fly overhead; yet it reminded me that there is still a place for Shakespeare in today’s world. Looking around the theatre, I could see faces young and old enjoying the play, laughing at the occasional quip or gasping at the shocking escapades of the king. Watching the play in such an environment, I found it clear that Shakespearean plays are still significant in the 21st century.
The celebrations of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death emphasises just how relevant Shakespeare remains in the 21st century. To commemorate this, a wide variety of events and activities were planned, which saw large crowds and audiences. Events at the Globe especially emphasise just how significant Shakespeare remains, including the Complete Walk, showcasing the work of Shakespeare down the South Bank, and the return of the world tour of Hamlet. In addition, the number of productions that continue to be made based on the work of Shakespeare again indicate the continued relevance of the playwright. From the Hamlet-based Disney classic of The Lion King to the more recent A Midsummer Night’s Dream production shown on the BBC, it is clear that Shakespeare’s plays remain an integral part of drama and comedies alike.