Literature: What you can still learn from Shakespeare today

Hardly any other writer is as celebrated worldwide as Shakespeare. But why exactly? Research in England, where some praise him as a genius and others compare him to a toast spread.

The admiration for William Shakespeare is still great 460 years after his birth, but it is not limitless. Shakespeare’s works have endured through the centuries. In his birthplace you meet school classes, literature fans, tourists and a local resident who takes a somewhat more enlightened view of things. It’s the same thing with Shakespeare, says the woman, who finds an interesting comparison.

Shakespeare is a bit like Marmite, the British spread that tastes like Maggi – “either you like it or you don’t.” Hardly any other writer is so well known worldwide. His plays are also frequently performed on German stages. So what can we still learn from Shakespeare’s works today?

“Oh God, where do you even start?” says Charlotte Scott from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, adding that you almost have to think about what you can’t learn from him. The organization manages the poet’s birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, a small town of half-timbered houses between London and Birmingham.

Why you can only estimate your date of birth

Shakespeare was born in 1564. The exact date is not known, only his baptism on April 26th is noted. Because it was customary back then to baptize children quickly, April 23rd is considered their birthday. At that time, the Julian calendar was used in England; according to today’s Gregorian calendar, the birthday would be at the beginning of May. Over the course of his life, Shakespeare appeared as an actor, wrote plays and sonnets, and became wealthy with shares in theaters such as the London Globe.

He had three children with his wife Anne Hathaway (yes, she had the same name as the current US actress) and became famous during his lifetime. The fact that many of his works were preserved may also be due to the fact that friends published a collection of texts after his death, the so-called Folio from 1623.

Was Shakespeare really that good?

Without this publication, many works might be lost. So did Shakespeare benefit from the circumstances? Or was he actually that talented? For Scott, both are true: “Yes, he really was that good. But yes, there were also circumstances that made him so well known.” His works gained momentum especially in the 18th century, when he was also spread throughout the British Empire and the colonies. It is of course problematic how iconic figures were used for such purposes.

Shakespeare is still one of England’s literary heroes today. In the traditional London bookstore Hatchards, for example, three shelves are dedicated to him. He is commemorated in Westminister Abbey. “Macbeth”, “Romeo and Juliet”, “Love’s Labour’s Lost”, “The Merchant of Venice” and “Hamlet” (with the well-known line “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”) are some of his works.

“Shakespeare is more than ever the leading playwright on the German stage,” says Detlev Baur, editor-in-chief of the magazine “Deutsche Bühne”, which is published by the German Stage Association. Statistically speaking, this is also due to the fact that he is represented in the canon with so many pieces. “With a general decline in the classics, his pieces are experiencing less severe declines than, for example, the former German classic, Goethe’s “Faust”.” The statistics show a shift towards his comedies.

“Admit it: we’ve all been there.”

For scholar Emma Smith, Shakespeare has a paradoxical role today. “On the one hand, his work is revered: quoted, performed, evaluated, subsidized, parodied. Shakespeare!” she writes in the book “This is Shakespeare.” On the other hand – she mentions yawning, eye rolling and the fear of intellectual failure – Shakespeare can feel like an obligation. You feel tired if you sit in the theater at half past nine in the evening and it’s still another hour away. “Admit it: we’ve all been there.”

Smith believes that you don’t have to be able to decipher every word, but rather you can deal with the themes of his texts. Fame, friendship, money, sex, politics, joy, suffering – many topics, including art itself. “Reading, thinking, questioning, interpreting, playing – that’s really Shakespeare.”

Scott sees it similarly. Shakespeare will rarely answer questions, but will instead ask more questions. “And what he wants from you as an audience or as a reader is for you to think.” For them, this is something that can still be learned from him today. Also that he was interested in dialogue, in breaking down opposites, in the playful use of language, which remains flexible and allows you to explore your own emotional landscapes.

Questioning power structures

The piece that constantly resonates with her is “Macbeth,” says Scott, quoting the first lines in which three witches meet. “When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightning, or in rain? – When the hurly-burly’s done, when the battle’s lost and won.” (“When will the three of us meet next? In rain, thunder, rays of weather? – When the confusion is gone, the battle is lost and won.”) A play that deals with the pursuit of power and the fatal consequences of it.

Shakespeare dealt with tyrants; asked questions about a country’s right to oppress or invade others. Questions that can also be asked about Russian President Vladimir Putin and his war of aggression against Ukraine.

“Shakespeare is fascinated by power. Who has it? Who has the right to it? Who is responsible for power? And what does it mean to want and have power?” says Scott. This remains relevant in all areas of society. Whether you look at hierarchical and political structures, families, partnerships or sibling relationships. Topics that everyone will face in their life. Even several centuries after Shakespeare’s death in 1616.


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