In the preface of the First Folio, Ben Jonson, who was Shakespeare’s rival poet and dramatist, wrote arguably the most famous eulogy to his late friend: ‘Soul of the age! The applause, delight, the wonder of our stage (…) He was not of an age but for all time!’
An elevating discourse on Shakespeare in 18th century (Dobson, 1994) and particularly on the occasion of the Tercentenary celebrations of his death in 1916 (Gollancz, 2016) have led some to interpret Jonson’s sentence as a claim for Shakespeare being above his own time; as if his genius and his work were hovering above us all for centuries past and centuries to come – immortal, eternal, timeless… This view has been generally replaced by a more historically contextualized perception of Shakespeare’s enduring appeal. As Eagleton (2008, pp. 32–33) puts it, Shakespeare is ‘for all times’ precisely because is not above time, but because in each century, each historical period, each generation of readers and theatre-goers for over 400 years have found in his plays and poems something that speaks closely to them, to their own times, in the here and now.
When we consider the large social and political reach of Shakespeare’s work, a good example of this contemporaneity is his contribution to the play Thomas More. In the surviving extract written by Shakespeare, the speaker addresses the rioting London mob which is demanding refugees to be ‘sent home’ because they ‘want their country back’. Perhaps no other piece of literature sounds more to the point when addressing the racist and xenophobic discourse of our Brexit /Trump era.
When thinking about the current political environment, we could look at Coriolanus’ disdain for the people of Ancient Rome and how he sees as below his state to be held publicly accountable for his actions to have a measure of the kind of responsibility and integrity we should be demanding from those holding public mandates in the 21st century. We could consider how the play portraits the members of the Roman Senate who manipulate information and discourse to mislead the population and achieve their own political goals to have a more clear view of how political discourse and rhetoric have been unethically used in our own times.
In a more private sphere, we could perhaps refer to Othello’s honour killing of Desdemona. This is not only a fictional personal tragedy taking place distant 16th century Cyprus, but one that could happen to the family next door in Leicester 2017. Similarly, the feud between two families in Verona that leads to the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is not far away from the gang wars in some communities in many places around the world, as some re-settings of the play have successfully explored (e.g. Luhrmann, 1996).
Jonson was right on his praise of Shakespeare ̶ perhaps more than he could ever imagine since we are still celebrating his birthday 453 years on. However, what is important about Shakespeare is not as much the man himself, as his work. Having studied the Greek and the Roman classics himself as a schoolboy, Shakespeare knew very well the power of poetry and stories to endure time and speak across the ages. It is his poems and plays that are not of an age but for all time, especially ours.
Happy birthday Will!
- Dobson, M. (1994). The Making of the National Poet: Shakespeare, Adaptation and Authorship, 1660-1769. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
- Eagleton, T. (2008). The rise and fall of the theory. In Walder, D. (ed), Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader (3 edition, pp. 824–833). Harlow: Routledge.
- Gollancz, I. (2016). A Book of Homage to Shakespeare. (G. McMullan, Ed.) (400 Anniversary edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Luhrmann, B. (1996). Romeo + Juliet. Retrieved from http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0117509/