In a world where the quality of the art form called "writing" is so often said to be rapidly diminishing, it is important for scholars of English literature to retain some studies of the true classics, such as Shakespeare. A well-rounded education logically must have a strong foundation in both modern and classical literature, the latter of which an in-depth study of Shakespearean works would more than satisfy. Not only was Shakespeare so well accomplished in his writing skills that he has become an undeniably significant point in the history of literature, but a majority of his works were written on such basic human themes that they will endure for all time and must not be allowed to slip into the tragic oblivion of old age.
William Shakespeare has become an important landmark in English literature. To see why this is so crucial for students to study, let us consider an analogy. One must be familiar with the conditions and circumstances of colonial America and pre-Revolutionary times if s/he is to understand the rationale behind many of the provisions of the Constitution, a two-hundred-year-old document still alive and highly significant today. In much the same way, one must be familiar with the early days of English literature in order to comprehend the foundation beneath much of more modern literature’s basis. Shakespeare’s modern influence is still seen clearly in many ways. For example, the success of Shakespeare’s works helped to set the precedent for the evolution of modern dramas and plays. He is also credited with being one of the first writers to use any modern prose in his writings; in fact, the growth of the popularity of prose in Shakespeare’s time is clearly shown as he used prose progressively more throughout his career.1
Furthermore, there can be no doubt that Shakespeare was a master of the artistry of the English language. He wrote with such fluidity of thought, word, rhythm, and sound that the work is presented in a complex manner, but is not unintelligible, even for the inexperienced reader. Often a single line would have several different meanings, each providing us with insight into a character or plot. For example, five lines from a scene from Richard III present much more than at first observed:
Rivers. Have patience, madam; there’s no doubt his Majesty
Will soon recover his accustomed health.
Grey. In that you brook it ill, it makes him worse.
Therefore for God’s sake entertain good comfort
And cheer his Grace with quick and merry eyes.
QueenElizabeth. If [the King] were dead, what would betide on me?
Grey. No other harm but loss of such a lord.
Queen Elizabeth. The loss of such a lord includes all
At a first glance, these characters seem only to be concerned about the poor health of their King. Yet each line reveals something about each character. Lord Rivers cares nothing for the King’s well being, and desires only to comfort the Queen, so that he might be well in her favor and possibly gain some higher position. Lord Grey knows nothing of the King’s true condition, and honestly foolishly believes he will recover. The Queen is far more concerned with what will become of her once the King is dead, than she is concerned about the death of her husband. The fact that all this might be gathered from so few words is a sign of a very skilled and crafty author, one which certainly must be studied and learned from.
Another sign of a truly paramount writer is one who finds even the entire existing vocabulary of his language limiting to his creative consciousness; Shakespeare often did, and so on occasion created his own form of grammar and vocabulary, much of which has since become common use. (A few examples of these would be the words "amazement", "dislocate", "premeditated", "dexterously", "windle","lackluster," using the masculine singular pronoun—"his" for "its" —now used for poetic effect, and using some nouns as verbs, such as "he childed as I fathered.")3. Few modern writers have such skill as to create new words which "stick" in our language, or to write in such a way that their words become common usage centuries later.
By using just the right combination of words, or by conjuring just the right image, Shakespeare authored countless passages and entire plays so powerful, poignant, comedic, tragic, and romantic that many are still being routinely memorized and performed today, nearly four centuries later. Yet the beauty of Shakespeare’s talent lies not so much in the basic themes of his works as in the ingenuity with which he painted these portraits of love, power, greed, discrimination, hatred, and despair. Queen Elizabeth in the movie Shakespeare in Love (1999) decreed that William Shakespeare was the first author to successfully put the very essence and truth of love into words; although only a movie, the decree is nonetheless accurate. It was this truth that he wrote which allowed his plays to attract both courtiers and peasants to the theatres, for the truths of humanity are not specific according to wealth or status. Everyone dreams of having love like Romeo and Juliet; it is for this reason that one of the most famous Shakespearean scenes is the balcony scene. Wrote Ben Jonson, Shakespeare is "not of an age, but for all time."
There can therefore be no doubt that substantial knowledge of the works of William Shakespeare is necessary for any education of English literature to be considered complete and well rounded. The extraordinary writing skills with which Shakespeare created his accurate portrayals of human truth have not been rivalled or replicated since his death, nearly four hundred years ago. To simply "skim over" such an integral part of literary history would be to take the innards out of a living, breathing creature. A creature cannot survive incomplete, and literature cannot survive without William Shakespeare.
1 Source: Barnet, Sylvan. Shakespeare: An Overview. Richard III. By William Shakespeare. 1597. Ed. Mark Eccles. New York, London, Victoria, Toronto: Signet Classic. 1998.
2 Shakespeare, William. Richard III. 1597. Ed. Mark Eccles. New York, London, Victoria, Toronto: Signet Classic. 1998.
3 Barnet, Sylvan
4 Quoted in Barnet, Sylvan.
How to cite this article:
Jenson, Ashlee. The Importance of ShakespeareShakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2003. (date when you accessed the information) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/essays/importance.html >.