Ten Reasons to Enjoy Shakespeare’s Works
In Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Harold Bloom argues that Shakespeare did more than just shape the structure and content of the English language—he created human nature as we understand it today. As James Shapiro explains, “Shakespeare remains so popular and his most memorable characters feel so real because through them Shakespeare invented something that hadn’t existed before. Bloom defines this as ‘personality,’ inwardness, what it means to be human. In so doing, Bloom adds, Shakespeare invented us as well.” This argument isn’t as far afield as some might think given Shakespeare’s comprehensive awareness of the human condition and ability to describe it with stunning clarity and beauty. At the very least, Shakespeare held the soul of mankind in his hands. Following are ten reasons to study him.
1. Reading Shakespeare will transform your understanding of language and thereby expand your consciousness.
Shakespeare’s written vocabulary of 17,677 words is twice that of John Milton’s. Of these words, 1,700 are neologisms, or newly coined words or expressions. This means Shakespeare played a central role in defining and transforming the English language. By reading him carefully and absorbing as much of his lexicon as possible, you will reshape your ability to comprehend ideas and perceive the world around you. Put simply, reading Shakespeare improves your critical thinking and reading skills. Observe the air spirit Ariel’s song to Ferdinand in The Tempest, where he describes an imagined transformation that occurs to Alonso, the King of Naples and Ferdinand’s father, deep underwater:
Full fathom five they father lies.
Of his bones are coral made.
Those are pearls that were his eyes.
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea change
Into something rich and strange.
The neologism sea change implies a metamorphosis that transcends conventional human understanding. Thirty feet below the surface of the sea, the King’s body doesn’t decompose, at least not in the eyes of a presence from the spirit world. It simply assumes a more beautiful and mysterious form. In subsequent years, sea change worked its way into daily conversation as a phrase indicating major change. The concept Shakespeare initially presented was so hauntingly gorgeous that others appropriated and applied it to common discourse in a simpler manner that anyone could understand. You will find remarkable conceptualizations like this on nearly every page of Shakespeare’s plays.
2. Shakespeare speaks to us in our darkest moments and lets us know we are not alone in our anger, frustration, and sorrow.
Good literature can serve as a catharsis, or release of emotions, when we feel isolated, furious, traumatized, and so on. Some of Shakespeare’s sonnets speak with such raw, transparent intensity that the reader has no choice but to be swept away by their emotional import. For instance, Sonnet 147 describes the misfortune of hating a former lover but still being consumed with desire. In this case, reason is like a physician overwhelmed by the feverish and deadly disease of passion:
My love is as a fever, longing still
For that which longer nurseth the disease,
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,
Th’ uncertain sickly appetite to please.
My reason, the physician to my love,
Angry that his prescriptions are not kept,
Hath left me, and I desperate now approve
Desire is death, which physic did except.
Past cure I am, now reason is past care,
And frantic-mad with evermore unrest;
My thoughts and my discourse as madmen’s are,
At random from the truth vainly expressed;
For I have sworn thee fair and thought thee bright,
Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.
If you have never had a former significant other inspire similar feelings in you, count yourself lucky and commit Sonnet 147 to memory as a warning.
3. Shakespeare shares a comic universe you never want to leave.
It hardly seems fair that someone so profound should also be funnier than most everyone else, but we’re all the luckier that Shakespeare decided to blend comedy with profundity. He mastered a form of seriocomedy that revolutionized drama, especially given that comedy and tragedy can’t be bifurcated. Comedy serves as a protective shield to allow us to deal with life, and Shakespeare understood this better than any dramatist of his era. Much Ado About Nothing is a grand demonstration of Shakespeare’s sense of humor. In the “merry war” between the sexes, Beatrice and Benedick, former lovers who despise each other openly but privately pine for each other, hurl insults in a public display of quicksilver wit that ends with Benedick storming off and Beatrice burning in anger.
I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior
Benedick: nobody marks you.
What, my dear Lady Disdain! are you yet living?
Is it possible disdain should die while she hath
such meet food to feed it as Signior Benedick?
Courtesy itself must convert to disdain, if you come
in her presence.
Then is courtesy a turncoat. But it is certain I
am loved of all ladies, only you excepted: and I
would I could find in my heart that I had not a hard
heart; for, truly, I love none.
A dear happiness to women: they would else have
been troubled with a pernicious suitor. I thank God
and my cold blood, I am of your humour for that: I
had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man
swear he loves me.
God keep your ladyship still in that mind! so some
gentleman or other shall ‘scape a predestinate
Scratching could not make it worse, an ’twere such
a face as yours were.
Well, you are a rare parrot-teacher.
A bird of my tongue is better than a beast of yours.
I would my horse had the speed of your tongue, and
so good a continuer. But keep your way, i’ God’s
name; I have done.
You always end with a jade’s trick: I know you of old.
4. Shakespeare’s plays feature accomplished music that often illuminates important themes.
More than one critic has defined Much Ado About Nothing as a work infused with a feminist message, punctuated most notably by an angry Beatrice saying of the contemptible Claudio, “Oh, God,that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the marketplace.” Nevertheless, Shakespeare accentuates the complexity of gender dynamics by introducing the following song into the play, leaving the audience uncertain of what to make of something so melodic yet fatalistic:
5. Studying Shakespeare’s works will help you come to see politics for what they really are.
Shakespeare offers political insights throughout his histories, comedies, romances, and tragedies that continue to be ignored or go unnoticed, as evidenced by the world’s current state of affairs. If Marx had paid closer attention to Coriolanus, an ironic political tragedy and Shakespeare’s second-longest play, he might have realized that class warfare will always exist between a small ruling elite (the Patricians) and everyone else (the Plebians), and the two factions will be forever at odds due to disparities in wealth and education; this power dynamic will remain relatively fixed although circumstances around quality of life change by degree based on improved technology. Along similar lines, prior to the Agincourt battle scene in Henry V, Henry intellectually and emotionally bullies Michael Williams, one of his soldiers, into conceding that the King is not ultimately responsible for his soldiers’ deaths on the battlefield. In other scenes, Henry invokes God, glory, and patriotism to justify his cause when, in fact, much of his motivation stems from a raw Machiavellian will to power. In this way, the more perceptive people in Shakespeare’s audience come to a clearer understanding of certain things that never change.
6. Shakespeare deconstructs convention to get to the truth.
Throughout his works, Shakespeare shows contempt for the Petrarchan convention of glorifying women by comparing them to ethereal forces or even deifying them. In Sonnet 135, he subverts this aberration in one fell swoop by offering a more realistic, unforgiving, and yet charming description of a woman who interests him:
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound.
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.
7. Shakespeare will break your heart.
As strange as it sounds, sometimes we have to see and feel others’ pain in order to make sense of our own lives and understand the devastating beauty of existence. Hamlet might be the most complex piece of literature ever written, so pontificating on what it means should be considered analytical hubris, to a great extent. Hamlet seems real because he and the world around him are complex networks of ever-changing perception and circumstance. Still, what makes his death so painful is that a brilliant young man who has lost nearly everything that matters to him, regardless of the causes, gives up his quest for truth, love, happiness, and life itself. When Horatio tries to convince Hamlet to withdraw from a duel with Laertes, Hamlet makes clear that he is fated to the task and ready to die:
You will lose, my lord.
I do not think so. Since he went into France, I have been in continual practice; I shall win at the odds. But thou wouldst not think how ill all’s here about my heart; but it is no matter.
Nay, good my lord—
It is but foolery, but it is such a kind of gain-giving as would perhaps trouble a woman.
If your mind dislike anything, obey it. I will forestall their repair hither and say you are not fit.
Not a whit, we defy augury. There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now; yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.
8. You can learn from Shakespeare the psychology of the mind and how this translates to group behavior.
If you’re seeking a compelling case study in psychopathic behavior, look no further than Iago in Othello, a play that also defines jealousy and its consequences to the letter:
O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-ey’d monster, which doth mock
The meat it feeds on. That cuckold lives in bliss,
Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger:
But O, what damnèd minutes tells he o’er
Who dotes, yet doubts, suspects, yet strongly loves!
Othello also details racism in terms that any 21st century child would recognize. On a more abstruse level, the play’s thematic undercurrents examine the fear of and fascination with the Other that even today’s best minds struggle to understand.
9. Shakespeare will teach you how to master the art of the insult.
For those who find today’s versions of trash talking symptomatic of a culture sliding into barbaric degeneracy, read the following lines from King Lear and think again:
Fellow, I know thee.
What dost thou know me for?
A knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats; a
base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited,
hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave; a
lily-livered, action-taking knave, a whoreson,
glass-gazing, super-serviceable finical rogue;
one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a
bawd, in way of good service, and art nothing but
the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pandar,
and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch: one whom I
will beat into clamorous whining, if thou deniest
the least syllable of thy addition.
Why, what a monstrous fellow art thou, thus to rail
on one that is neither known of thee nor knows thee!
What a brazen-faced varlet art thou, to deny thou
knowest me! Is it two days ago since I tripped up
thy heels, and beat thee before the king? Draw, you
rogue: for, though it be night, yet the moon
shines; I’ll make a sop o’ the moonshine of you:
draw, you whoreson cullionly barber-monger, draw.
Drawing his sword
Away! I have nothing to do with thee.
Kent is, perhaps, Lear’s most loyal subject, and his verbal and physical assault on the unctuous sycophant Oswald is usually met with delight by audiences everywhere.
10. Shakespeare’s world is a colored dream that examines the bittersweet beauty of our brief lives.
In The Tempest, Prospero reminds his new son-in-law Ferdinand that existence is a precious dream to be cherished because of its transitory nature.
You do look, my son, in a moved sort,
As if you were dismay’d: be cheerful, sir.
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.