15 June 2013

So Just Why Do People Like Shakespeare So Much?

Today I'm gonna try to explain in a simple, clear way why people like a centuries-dead guy who wrote a bunch of plays with incomprehensible words so much. Yes, I'm talking about Shakespeare!

This was originally going to be a triviality, but after arguing with a friend over the genius of Shakespeare, I knew I had to do my nerdly, intellectual duty and defend the Bard.

He could do without the moustache...
So, if you're reading this, I assume you want to know just why people like Shakespeare so much. Here's my answer (and very likely your teacher's answer): He perfectly captured the human condition.

So, first off: What the hell is the 'human condition'? I didn't pick that phrase by accident - many scholars and teachers use it when talking about the Bard.

The human condition is basically what all humans feel. What makes us different (unique's a better word) from everything on Earth and the universe. From the pain of a breakup, to laughing really hard at that joke your friend told you, to the awe at stargazing, to worrying about your future and concerns for family -- everything that we have unique in feeling and thought is the human condition.

So how did a weird, perverted guy from the late 1500s do that? Look at the plots of his plays.
Two people meet and fall in love. Love at first sight. They want to be together, but they can't. Frustration and depression. Sound familiar? His play's an allegory (says one thing but means another) for how people want to seek out lovers who may be impossible to get, and how hate is evil.

"What a piece of work is man! Er, ghost.."
Here's another: a young, angsty teenager loses his father. His evil uncle marries his mom. Then, in a scene from Paranormal Activity, said teenager's dad is a ghost and tells his son that his evil uncle, is, well, really evil, and cannot control the kingdom. Young Hamlet (yes, this is Hamlet) wants his uncle dead so much and soon everyone dies. While you may not hate your uncle that much, wouldn't you be really pissed off and depressed that a family member killed your parent?

As you can see, Shakespeare tried really hard to capture his audiences' feelings in his own characters. Remember, he had only 2 forms of competition, in a line I'll borrow from Baz Luhrmann:

"We know about the Elizabethan stage and that he was playing for 3000 drunken punters, from the street sweeper to the Queen of England - and his competition was bear-baiting and prostitution." 

But wait, you're saying. I don't care that he copied people really well or whatever that lame 'human condition' is. Why do we still care about Shakespeare (henceforth referred to as William/Will/Willy)?

Well, here's another thing for you: his poetry. Not his sonnets (I really don't care for his sonnets, though, his plays are cool.) But William can be very poetic when having his characters open their mouths. This line from Romeo and Juliet is a very romantic way to describe a woman:

Well, in that hit you miss: she'll not be hit
With Cupid's arrow; she hath Dian's wit...
O, she is rich in beauty, only poor,
That when she dies with beauty dies her store.

In 2013 English: Love (Cupid) can't "shoot his arrow" at her (meaning make her fall in love), she's as smart and clever as Artemis (Diana/goddess of hunting)...she's so beautiful but yet when she'll die, her beauty will die untouched since she would not go with any man.

(Gentlemen: If you're now interested in writing love poems to your significant other in the style of Shakespeare, let me direct you to a little song by Cole Porter...)

Now you're probably very bored or very interested, and I have one more reason to give why you, too, should like Shakespeare: His double entendres.

"Wait, what? He has...naughty jokes?" Well, yes, he does.

But before you start opening that barely-opened copy of Othello, let me warn you, they don't make any sense anymore. Unless, of course, you are well versed in the art of William's language. But here are a couple that one can get without going too much into rhyming and changing consonants.

"GET THEE TO A NUNNERY!" (Hamlet to his girlfriend. In Will's day, a nunnery meant a brothel.)
"My cherry lips have often kissed thy stones." (Midsummer Night's Dream. You can figure it out.)

In addition to double entendres William also invented lots of words and phrases that we use today, such as "mind's eye", "lonely", "puke", "obscene", and "cold-blooded". He was also a master at wordplay. Though, to be perfectly candid, he did adapt many of these from Latin, so it shouldn't count. That'd be like you taking a word from Spanish or Chinese and turning it into an English-sounding word and making the world use it.

So yeah, Shakespeare was awesome. He had double entendres going on, he could sure describe people really well, and in poetry. If you have any more questions or more reasons you'd like me to argue, drop a line in the comments. I'll likely devote some future blogposts on his quotes. I just love quoting Shakespeare, especially the lesser known ones ("to be or not to be" just doesn't cut it).

-The piece of work of man that is known as Rob


  1. Well, if I agree with one thing, it is that you are a piece of work, sir.

  2. You couldn't have posted this like, a couple weeks ago when I was writing my essay on him/MSND? ;)

  3. Most of those are the reasons I dislike the bard. Especially the bad jokes. Or is it the melodrama, or the bad biblically-styled poetry, it's so hard to choose. Maybe it's his pure bigotry - as discussed in A History of Racism.

  4. I've never read ANY of Shakespeare's books, at all. So my knowledge of him is nonexistent. In other words, I neither hate him nor love him. I simply don't know anything about him and was curious, which is what led me here.

    Anyways, I am not familiar with classical English, but I do plan (maybe) on taking an English major alongside Psychology, which is the main major I am interested in. The reason why I give a thought into taking an English major is because I feel it would help me in the long run plus in my conversational/ writing skills, which may help in any career. Any advises? I somehow immediately feel like English major involves at least knowing Shakespeare which I don't in the slightest bit, and it makes me apprehensive about taking English major.

  5. Please tell me more about the bear-baiting, that sounds infinitely more relatable.

    I think the real answer to "why does everyone like Shakespeare" is simple: having read or otherwise tolerated the Shakespearean-experience the recipient, finding no immediate gratification in the ordeal will set the mind to deriving any tangible benefit from the time commitment.

    The most accessible benefit turns out to be the feeling of superiority through exclusivity in having endured something that someone else is unaware of. It therefore most be immediately proclaimed to be a thing worth knowing so as to ascribe value in this acquired knowledge. Later, when those around you have also experienced the same waste of time, it is important to double-down on your initial statements. This raises the proclaimer to a higher intellectual status. Surely, if they claim that an indecipherable and mundane story is somehow Earth-shattering the failure to recognize these traits must lie in my own intellect. This is also why Citizen Kane is such a great film.