Recently, Shakespeare was deemed by a famous radio personality as “unrelatable,” aloof, as he is, in language and distant in time. This critic is not alone in his thoughts about Shakespeare. Many today associate Shakespeare with the elite—the royalty of his day and the cultured of ours.
But Shakespeare truly was—and still is—a poet and playwright of the people and for the people—all people.
About Shakespeare’s Life
Unlike most well-known writers who lived before the modern age, Shakespeare was born into the working class, the son of a struggling tradesman who dabbled in a number of jobs after arriving in 1551 in Stratford-Upon-Avon, where William was born (1564), lived, and died (1616).
While Shakespeare attended the local grammar school, he did not go to university as other well-known writers of the age did. Rather, when he was just 18, he married Anne Hathaway, who was pregnant with their first child. Several years later, after the birth of two more children, Shakespeare’s first plays appeared on the London stage. This poor, provincial family man who dared to compete with aristocrats was described by a contemporary as an “upstart crow.”
But his humble origins and great achievements helped his work reflect the universals of the human condition. Both Shakespeare’s life and his works mirror the highs and lows of the age and its people. While his wife was likely illiterate, he counted Queen Elizabeth among his friends. When King James came to the throne, Shakespeare’s acting company was renamed “The King’s Men,” and they performed at court as well as on the stage. In Shakespeare’s day, plays were attended by everyone: royalty and commoners alike. For a mere pittance, the so-called “groundlings” gained a standing space in the pit, or yard, in which the theater sat. As many as 500 people squeezed into this space, where they stood for the duration of the three-hour production, which is why these folks were often called “stinkards.” Shakespeare’s productions brought members from every level of society together.
About Shakespeare’s Work
While Shakespeare’s language sounds fancy today, much of it reflected the tongue of his day. In fact, his works employ many common literary devices: puns, double entendres, innuendo, and slapstick humor. Shakespeare is credited with coining or changing the use of over 1,700 words, in a fashion similar to the way slang terms are developed today. A writer with a classical university education would not likely have been so daring and innovative.
Yes, Shakespearean verse is elegant and lofty, to be sure, often unfamiliar and difficult at first for most readers today. But even popular music on the radio is written in verse and quickly becomes familiar with repeated listening. Shakespeare’s poetry stands up even better than this to repeated exposure. And some of the words and usages attributed to Shakespeare in regular use today are staples in our vocabulary for common experience: lonely, generous, jaded, bedroom, majestic, gloomy, luggage, blanket, and dawn.
About Shakespeare’s Themes
Over the course of his life, Shakespeare wrote nearly 40 plays (tragedies, comedies, and histories), 154 sonnets, and two narrative poems—that we know of. While many of his works deal with weighty themes and noble characters, his works are generously populated with rascals, drunks, witches, and buffoons. His primary subjects—love, loyalty, ambition, betrayal, greed, friendship, suicide, murder, and death—are the things that concern us all as a people:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
— from As You Like It
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