What is the value of Shakespeare’s work in modern society?
William Shakespeare, just the mention of that name is enough to excite a chorus of groans around any classroom. We’ve all heard of him, but the name incites a level of fear because we expect to not understand the difficult language or gain anything from someone who lived over 400 years ago. However, if we take the time to study his works in Modern English, we come to understand that his topics and characters speak to a modern audience just as forcefully as they did when he was writing in the 16th century. William Shakespeare was an English poet, playwright and actor, widely regarded as the best writer in the English language. His play, ‘Twelfth Night’, is a good introduction to Shakespeare as an artist and the themes of unrequited love, confusing romantic connections and gender issues transcend time, place and age. Shakespeare’s plays remain relevant to us because we still struggle with the same issues that his characters faced.
In ‘Twelfth Night’ there are numerous situations where love is unrequited. For example, in the play Duke Orsino states “O, when mine eyes did see Olivia first, Methought she purged the air of pestilence”. Duke Orsino reveals his desire for Olivia and we soon learn that Olivia is not moved by the Duke’s advances. He constantly sends people like Cesario to persuade her to accept him, but again and again he gets rejected. He does not take no for an answer and when Olivia consciously tries to reject him whilst mourning the death of her brother, the Duke is not discouraged. In fact, her brevity only acts as fuel to his passion. Duke Orsino has a hard time wrapping his brain around the idea that Olivia isn’t interest in him. He is completely dismissive of the notion that Oliva could love so intensely a dead brother. He mistakenly believes that she will somehow channel all her energy into a relationship with him. The pain of unrequited love is still relevant to a modern-day audience and is something that most of us will learn to understand as we painfully experience one-sided love, or, worse still, outright rejection.
Love is a re-occurring theme in Shakespearian plays and we see this in Twelfth Night. It seems like Shakespeare enjoys playing with love triangles. Twelfth Night follows along this pattern and it can confuse the audience a little: this is shown when Cesario, who is really Viola disguised as a man, is in love with Duke Orsino, but Duke Orsino is in love with Olivia, but, unfortunately for the Duke, Olivia is in love with Cesario, who is really Viola disguised as a man. Modern life is full of confusing romantic connections like these and even when we are not directly involved, we are fascinated by them. It’s the 16th century version of our modern-day realty TV show, Married at First Sight.
To further illustrate Shakespeare’s value in modern society, Twelfth Night brilliantly demonstrates how gender is merely a socially constructed identity. This is played out in Twelfth Night as Viola, who is female, disguises herself as a young man. His play pulls together the overarching theme that although it is often seen as more, gender is merely a label – a socially constructed identity. Even today society still recognizes vast differences amongst men and women; however, Shakespeare points out that plenty of likenesses exist. In doing so throughout Twelfth Night, he speaks to readers and viewers alike about the ambiguity of gender as well as the strict societal constructs of male and female. There is a crucial line in the last act where Duke Orsino meets Sebastian, the twin brother of Viola. He states “One face, one voice, one habit, and two persons – A natural perspective that is and is not.” (V.i.216-218) He notes that they look, sound, and dress the same yet are not because Viola is really female, but, other than gender there is no difference.
Through the exploits of Duke Orsino, Viola and Olivia, Twelfth Night seems to embody the themes of unrequited love, confusing romantic connections and gender issues.A modern audience still finds the themes of relevant in today’s society. Shakespeare’s play, Twelfth Night reveals that these themes have not lost their meaning over the centuries. The topics of unrequited love, confusing romantic connections and gender issues are all too real in today’s modern society and we are all likely to experience at least a couple of these issues in life. We all should read more Shakespeare for an insight into modern society behaviors.
For modern audiences, it’s easy to forget about issues of ‘class’ in Shakespeare’s famously gender-bending play. Yet, crossing gender boundaries is not the only kind of social transgression at work in Twelfth Night. The play is very much concerned with social ambition, especially as it relates to marrying above or below one’s ‘estate’ (rank). The issue is largely explored in the Malvolio plot, where the play takes particular pleasure in ridiculing Malvolio’s social-climbing fantasies. Of course, Shakespeare himself was not born into a noble or even wealthy family, and famously purchased his ‘Gentleman’ title after a lucrative theater career, which may be of interest in relation to Feste’s status. While drunken fools like Sir Toby Belch eat, drink, and spend their way through life, the brilliant performer and ‘licensed fool,’ Feste, works for spare change and is often treated like a common servant.
- ‘Exploring the Ambiguities of Gender Identity in Twelfth Night’, Emma Luk, 2010, Prized Writing, http://prizedwriting.ucdavis.edu/exploring-ambiguities-gender-identity-twelfth-night
- ‘Love triangle in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night’ [online], Bartelby Writing https://www.bartleby.com/essay/Love-Triangle-in-William-Shakespeares-Twelfth-Night-FK2GH5YVC
- ‘Shakespeare II’ [online] https://newpaltzshakespeare.wordpress.com/2014/09/16/olivia-violacesario-love-triangle/
- Twelfth Night Quotes, Sparknotes, https://www.sparknotes.com/shakespeare/twelfthnight/quotes/theme/desire-and-love/