Shakespeare: Our contemporary?

Gill Stoker considers to what extent Shakespeare would be at home in our contemporary world.

Is Shakespeare relevant today? Ask the first person you meet in the street, “What comes into your mind when I say Shakespeare?” and there’s a good chance they’ll quote the famous line “To be or not to be” — words spoken by a young man, traumatised by his father’s death, and so unhappy that he’s considering putting an end to his own life.

There are countless situations like this in Shakespeare’s plays, that can be put into the category of ‘the human condition’ — part of what it means to be human, something that never changes from century to century, or country to country, despite all the differences in knowledge, culture and emphasis.

This is one good reason why Shakespeare’s plays continue to be performed, not just in English-speaking countries, but also in translation throughout the world. Shakespeare’s characters fall in love, and out of it, take a dislike to each other, betray each other, misunderstand each other, argue, fight and kill each other, are angry, sad, happy, jealous, envious, distrustful, untrustworthy, deceptive, magnanimous, forgiving… — experiencing practically every human emotion you can think of, and every human situation.

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Also, the social issues of Shakespeare’s day which feature in the plays — class division, racism, sexuality, intolerance, the role and status of women, crime, war, death, disease — are still the burning issues in today’s dysfunctional global society.

Of course one of the big arguments against Shakespeare’s relevance is the language the plays are written in — it can be hard going if you’re reading one of his plays for the first time, and trying to make sense of it.

But there are ways round this — I don’t think it’s ‘cheating’ to watch a play in the theatre or on video first, or to play an audio version and follow the printed text at the same time. After all, Shakespeare wrote his plays to be performed, not to be read in miserable isolation.

By hearing, and preferably seeing a group of actors embodying the characters, it’s possible to get a good sense of the story without grinding to a halt and becoming disheartened.

The more plays that are enjoyed in this way — and enjoyment should be the keyword — the clearer a picture emerges of the universal and relevant situations which Shakespeare wrote about.

That’s fine, I hear you say, but what about all the fantasy stuff in Shakespeare — ghosts, for example? Hamlet’s father coming back as a ghost, to tell his son how he died. Banquo’s ghost terrifying Macbeth at the dinner table. We’re living in a scientific age now, and ghosts are no longer relevant, are they?

But we only have to look at the TV schedules to see that the supernatural is still a very popular subject — there’s a boom industry in ghost walks, books about the supernatural, and programmes such as Living TV’s Most Haunted series to send shivers up and down the viewer’s spine, in the same way that the appearance of ghosts on stage at the Globe Theatre on Bankside thrilled Shakespeare’s first audiences.

Admittedly, instead of Old Hamlet describing his own ‘most horrible’ murder, we get Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged, putting the record straight to Derek Acorah about how many times she pulled the trigger, and confirming that she and her victim-lover have made up their quarrel and are now living happily together in the spirit world.

In fact the programme has had such an impact on the popular psyche that it’s affecting house sales — estate agents report that potential buyers can be put off if they think a house is haunted, or even if they discover that someone died there, and one well-known actress actually sold her house last year because a ghost ordered her to leave!

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Of course there are still a few far-fetched aspects in Shakespeare’s plays that are hard to go along with today — for example all those young women dressing as boys, for the purpose of disguise. But there are some modern equivalents — I saw a documentary recently, showing how teenage girls living on the streets of Brazil deliberately dress in a boyish way to avoid being attacked.

A better-known example is Julia Roberts in the film Sleeping with the Enemy, dressing as a boy to pay a clandestine visit to her mother in a nursing home.

And talking of films, this modern medium has given Shakespeare’s plays a new lease of life, and introduced them to a much wider audience than would ever have contemplated going to the theatre.

The Romeo and Juliet story has always been one of the best known, and millions of people have seen the Baz Luhrmann version, which translated so well into a modern Californian setting.

And what about Shakespeare himself? Does he bear any similarity to a typical modern man? Well, from the little we know about him, he was surely what today we would call ‘driven’, leaving his wife and family behind him in Stratford to pursue his career in London. In his thirties he may have gone through a crisis of sexual identity; he was a practical man of the theatre, knowing what paid and what didn’t, and creating his own ‘market’.

He socialised in the pub with his friends and colleagues; he knew how to write to please audiences of all classes; he was successful enough to gain royal patronage, and to attract the enmity of rival playwrights and poets; he had no time for pomposity, pedantry or puritanism; he may have associated with prostitutes; he may have contracted a sexually transmitted disease.

It’s just that, while living life to the full, he also had the magical ability to write the most amazing plays to entertain his contemporaries. Those plays are still entertaining people, whether in authentic historical performance or modern interpretation on the stage, or in countless film and TV adaptations throughout the world.

Gill Stoker was a tutor with The Open University’s Arts Faculty from 1990. This article was originally published in OpenLearn in October 2005. You should subscribe to our newsletter for more free courses, articles, games and videos.

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