2016 marks 400 years since Shakespeare’s death and it very likely that most people will only manage to miss it if they are living on another planet. Yet, there is still a chance that someone will have the idea of broadcasting some of the most famous sonnets into space in the hope the radio waves will reach some less well-read extra-terrestrial life forms out there. Or maybe it should be the ‘What’s a man’ soliloquy in Hamlet performed by Cumberbatch? Not a bad idea at all. I hope someone from NASA reads this post.
Jokes apart, indeed there are many organizations, institutions, and publishers committed to provide the means to celebrate Shakespeare in 2016. There is concerted effort to share his works and Shakespearean scholarship among a broader readership and audiences around the world and this is a very good thing indeed.
In the course of the last months I have been asked a couple of times to talk about why Shakespeare is still relevant today and I am sure others have been through the same experience. My standard answer is twofold: one reason refers to language and the other to content. Firstly, Shakespeare’s language is alive in the English we speak nowadays as it became part of the fabric of the language in a way that can only be compared to the influence exerted by the language in the King James’s Bible. Secondly, his plays and poems talk about things that are still relevant to all of us everywhere regardless of the culture to which people belong. Still, there is more to it…
It doesn’t matter how many times I tell my students that Shakespeare’s language is very similar to our English, that linguists have found out that only 5% of Shakespeare’s words are indeed out of use and different from Modern English (Crystal & Crystal, 2002), and that difficulty is a perceived and shifting concept. I can still read the skepticism on their faces. And they are right. Shakespeare is difficult. However, I still don’t think language is the main source of difficulty, although we have to admit that some passages can be particularly dense. The difficulty comes from complexity of thought (Crystal, 2008), from extended metaphors, punning, and complex imagery (Kermode, 2000), as well as ‘poetic allusiveness’ (Smith, 2007, p.72).
Davis (2013, p.7) argues that poetry is vital to humans in a way that other writings are less so because poetry ‘lights up in the brain some new force of emotional interest’ that shifts the ‘mind attention and energy’ creating a ‘field of consciousness around it’. For him, Shakespeare’s use of language offers ‘both writer and reader a holding-ground for the contemplation of experience’ (p.16). Perhaps more than any other writer, Shakespeare is able to create this field of consciousness about language. He prompts the awakening of our thinking brains; he surprises us; he keeps us on our toes; he requires us to be critical readers; he forces us to read things from different angles and points of views. Every time we encounter Shakespeare, we are challenged.
Difficulty, I want to argue, is perhaps one of the main reasons why Shakespeare is still relevant today.
The problem is not with Shakespeare; it is with us. We have been conditioned to think that difficulty is a bad thing. There are plenty of examples of who people try to digest Shakespeare to others in order to make it ‘easy’: there is a website called ‘No Fear Shakespeare’; some argue that we have to translate him into ‘more accessible’ language; there are tips out there to make Shakespeare ‘easy’ to our students. We want everything easy and accessible – our motto seems to be ‘Just Google It’. Sorry, that will not do here. There may be some place and use for these things, but I shall argue that finding ‘easy reading’ is not the reason why Shakespeare endures the taste of time and is still relevant to us. On the contrary! Umberto Eco, the philosopher and fiction writer who sadly passed away just yesterday once said, ‘People are tired of simple things’. He might as well have been just thinking about Shakespeare.
- Crystal, D and Crystal, B. (2002) Shakespeare’s Words. London: Penguin.
- Crystal, D. (2008) Think of My Words:Exploring Shakespeare’s Language.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Davis, P. (2013) Reading and the Reader. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Kermode, F. (2000) Shakespeare’s Language. London: Penguin.
- Smith, E. (2007) The Cambridge Introduction to Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.