Why Shakespeare (Still) Matters

Courtesty of Katherine Tomlinson

If I were queen of the world, or at least in charge of the American education system, I would not choose Julius Caesar as the play to introduce high school students to the work of William Shakespeare. I know why they do it. As Shakespeare’s plots go, Julius Caesar is rather straightforward and there’s that great speech by Brutusgives at Caesar’s funeral  that is just the perfect length to memorize. (“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.”) Probably that’s all most students get out of Julius Caesar except for a deep and abiding loathing of all things Shakespearean. I know this because Julius Caesar was the first Shakespeare play I ever read and it ….bored me. But then I got to college and fell in love with Shakespeare the way it’s meant to be experienced—performed on the stage. I still don’t love Julius Caesar, but I am now and forever will be, a Shakespeare fan girl. (That’s right, Shakespeare is my Star Trek. Geeks come in all flavors.)

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I think a lot more people would come to an appreciation of Shakespeare a lot sooner if the first play they were introduced to was Macbeth. Now that’s a play that’s not going to bore anyone. It’s got ghosts. It’s got witches. It’s got sex. It’s got blood. It’s basically Game of Thrones played out in a small country called Scotland instead of across the seven kingdoms of Westeros. Think of Lady Macbeth as Cersei Lannister, “a tiger’s heart wrapped in woman’s hide.”

The reason I believe that writers should know their Shakespeare is that for almost half a millennium—this year marks the 450th anniversary of his birth—Shakespeare has been the wellspring of a vibrant and evolving language. Which may surprise you. Yes, a lot of his words are archaic, even defunct. (Who says “zounds” anymore?) But a lot of the words we use every single day without thinking about it are words that Shakespeare invented. Yes, when he needed a word, he just made it up. here’s a partial list:

Addiction

Advertising

Dawn

Elbow

Hint

Label

Luggage

(For a complete list, check out Shakespeare Online: http://www.shakespeare-online.com/biography/wordsinvented.html

Today Shakespeare’s plays are considered literature, but in his day, he was writing for the equivalent of network television. Even though he had royal patrons, he was writing for the common folk, the mass audience, the people in the cheap seats. The words he used would have been understood by anyone in his audience. He was a genius at communicating and he was incredibly precise with his language. He always used the right word and, as noted, if the right word wasn’t handy, he’d invent a new word that was.

A writer can learn a lot from Shakespeare and one of those things is learning how to use words the way a painter uses pigments. Children love learning new words, the sillier sounding the better (Thank you Dr. Seuss). If you take that delight and apply it to Shakespeare, you may find that reading the plays is more of a joy than a chore. And your own writing will be the richer for it. I know mine is.

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