A little over 400 years ago on April 23rd William Shakespeare passed away, however, he became somewhat immortal through his fantastic dramas and literature. We learn about his tragedies, comedies, and poetry even today all around the world in high schools and at the university level. Famous English romantic poet John Keats even kept a copy of Shakespearian literature near his desk in the hope that Shakespeare himself would spark his creativity. Shakespeare is such an important figure in British culture because of his ability to connect with all his audiences, he broke boundaries in his literature, he influenced and altered the English language and British culture, and because of the time period that Shakespeare lived in.
Between 1590 and 1613 the people of London and Queen Elizabeth I herself went to Shakespeare’s plays not just because of their action and betrayal elements. Shakespeare had the gift of connecting with the audience; he pulled at their heartstrings with powerful stories as well as made parallels to what was happening in England and around the world in that time period. He was able to make his stories seem like they could be happening anywhere at any time; they weren’t farfetched. Shakespeare lived in a time of wars, wars between royal families and between whole nations and countries, when he put those features into his plays people at the time could relate, and they can still relate today.
In Hamlet, King Claudius sends and hires spies as well as hitmen to carry out his dirty work throughout the play, parallel to how in that time Queen Elizabeth and her advisors would hire people to do the same sort of jobs. Another example is in Coriolanus when the people in the play riot over high prices, this is a parallel to how real people in Shakespeare’s time, and even today, would riot and protest over high prices, unfair taxes, equal rights, and other similar circumstances.
Romeo and Juliet is another great example of how Shakespeare became such an important figure in British culture by connecting with his audiences. In Act 3, scene 5 Juliet tells her mother that she refuses to marry Paris, when Lord Capulet, her father, enters he is enraged that Juliet is disobeying him, he violently strikes her, insults her then threatens to disown her if she doesn’t marry Paris. Although not to this extreme many people in the audience can connect and relate to Juliet. Their parents may not be forcing them into a marriage however many people know what it is like to have a large argument with their parents because they believe something is unfair. We connect to Juliet on an emotional level when she is fighting with her father. Another example comes from Act 1, scene 3 when the audience first meets Juliet. In this scene, Lady Capulet, Juliet’s mother, explains to Juliet that her father has decided that it is time for her to marry. We previously just heard the Nurse telling a comical story about when Juliet was younger to her mother and now Lady Capulet has to tell her daughter her childhood is over, it’s now time for her to get married. All the parents in the audience are immediately enthralled because many of them know the feelings of pride and sober or they fear the day that they have to let go of their child go. Whether it’s to go out in the world on their own or say goodbye because their child is getting married. The parents in the audience know the emotions and the feeling of their child’s childhood ending and now it’s time for them to become an adult and spread their wings to leave the nest.
It is interesting to note that another way Shakespeare became a famous figure in British culture was his way of raising questions about prejudice, discrimination, tolerance, and what it meant to be an Englishman. Shakespeare focused on the way people were treated, for example, the play Othello raised difficult questions for the audience about how people in society are treated differently based on if they look different, note that Othello was a play written almost 40 years before the slave trade. The play The Taming of the Shrew also pokes fun at masculinity but at the same time ironically scrutinizes gender roles. His view on women was also groundbreaking; the women in his plays weren’t bumbling idiots, used like objects, or only in the literature for their sexuality. The women from his plays were smart, cunning, articulate, bold, and overall strength. A common theme being a strong woman standing up to male authority or figurehead, like a father, and being assertive and determined to stick by the man she loves instead of marring someone else. This is seen in Romeo and Juliet when Juliet stands up to her father when she won’t marry Paris and when she will go as far as take a drug to make her seem dead so that Romeo will come and carry her away to run off, she is terrified of waking in a tomb filled with corpses but nevertheless takes the drug. Viola from Twelfth Night is another powerful woman, when she shipwrecks on a beach on Illyria she loses her twin brother but her first instinct isn’t to cry for help or appeal to others as a helpless woman for support; she dresses s a man to disguise herself then finds a job as a servant in the home of a Duke. Throughout the play she feels free, she can move around without a man always in her shadow chaperoning her, she gets used to protecting herself, and makes her own decisions. She even gains the ability to manipulate her circumstances to ensnare the Duke into marrying her.
Nevertheless, Shakespeare didn’t become an icon in British culture just because he could connect with audiences then, and now, and bring up controversial scenarios in his plays, it was also because of how he changed British culture by changing the English language. The Oxford dictionary defines culture as “The arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively” and “The ideas, customs, and social behavior of a particular people or society”. In summary, these definitions mean that art, literature, customs and traditions, food, language, and other philosophies and beliefs are what make up the culture and are what effects and sway culture over time. Culture is influenced greatly by the language we speak and the diction we use. This is further supported by American cultural anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber who stated “culture began when speech was present, and from then on, the enrichment of either means the further development of the other”.
As stated, language and diction over time will influence and change a culture, and vice versa. It is said that Shakespeare created over 1,000 common words and phrases in the English Language not only by creating words on his own but by changing nouns into verbs for example “to torture”, he also turned verbs into adjectives, and he linked words together that had never been used before like “pomp and circumstance” from Othello or “full circle” from Macbeth.
A reason why Shakespeare is such an important figure in British culture is because he changed the way we communicate in the English language, we almost quote him every day. A few of these words and phrases was used include “Dead as a Doornail” which was first used in Henry VI Part 2, “Best foot forward”, the word bedazzled, and the phrase “Break the ice” were both used in The Taming of the Shrew, “cold-blooded” can be found in King John, the word scuffle is in Antony and Cleopatra, and many more. He even created and popularized various female names like Jessica (which is from The Merchant of Venice), Miranda (from The Tempest), and Olivia (from Twelfth Night).
Another way Shakespeare influenced British culture was how for years after his death he would be influencing the work of many artists, writers, creators, and others around the world and in Great Britain. An example from around the world was the writer Herman Melville who famously created the novel Moby-Dick, which is based on Macbeth and King Lear. In addition, in 1961 American directors Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise filmed West Side Story, which is inspired by Romeo and Juliet. In British culture, however, there are numerous writers that created work based on Shakespeare. Aldous Huxley, an English writer, and philosopher, created the novel Brave New World, published in 1932, which was influenced by Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Josephine Tey, a Scottish author, in 1951 created the novel The Daughter of Time in which the idea of the book was influenced by Shakespeare’s Richard III. And finally, the book Bell, Book, and Candle created by English playwright John van Druten was influenced by King John.