You were all forced to read him in high-school. You really don’t get Romeo and Juliet. You’re fully aware that his “historical plays” are anything but. You might even hold the opinion that he’s *gasp* overrated. You know who I’m talking about–William Shakespeare, the Bard of Avon.
If you think that Shakespeare is trite and over done, you would be wrong. He isn’t known as the Bard because he pulled some political strings. And his plays aren’t still read today out of some misplaced sense of duty. Shakespeare, no matter how trite his plays may seem when viewed through modern expectations, is a master of the English language. He (along with William Tyndale) is directly responsible for the language you speak today. When no word existed with the meaning he wanted, he invented one. He came up with metaphors you use in your every day speech without being aware of it. And when he wanted to give a character an impassioned monologue he did so, with style and flair that is the envy of politicians.
Some of the words brought into the English language by means of his plays are bedazzled, addiction, assassin, baseless, cold-blooded, freezing, gnarled, pageantry, and unaccommodated. For a list as well as the scenes they’re used in see Shakespeare Online. And even longer list (along with those incorrectly attributed) can be found here. In fact, of the 17,677 words that make up his bibliofolio, 1,700 were used by him for the first time.
But we are far from done. If you have ever caught a cold, waited with bated breath, eaten your parents out of house and home, bid an enemy good riddance. broken the ice with a stranger, or told a knock-knock joke then you are reaping the benefits of Shakespeare’s brilliance. His words can be found everywhere–and tributes to his genius can be located in everything from Star Trek to Adolf Huxely. (Both “All Our Yesterdays” and “Brave New World” are phrases Shakespeare coined.) Neither Tolkien nor Sherlock Holmes would be the same, were they not built on Shakespeare’s foundation. From “All that glitters is not gold” to “The game is afoot,” the Bard’s skill for metaphor and word play is evident in the world around us.
So what about his plays, then? Why are the plots so dumb? Well of course they’re dumb, taken out of context. In the 17th century, when Shakespeare wrote, we didn’t have this endless hierarchy of writers, editors, publishers, reviewers, and critics. We didn’t have an influx of writers producing more words than could ever be read if everyone in the world actually made the attempt. We didn’t have the ten minute attention span induced by modern television that requires constant change of scenery, and unexpected plot twists. What seem to us cliché in Shakespeare’s plays were ground-breaking at the time. Romeo and Juliet is not a stereotype-it’s an archetype. Every story of star-crossed lovers is based on his tale. He did it first, and the story is so compelling that it’s been told, and retold for centuries, and shows no sign of fading into the annals of history.
There are two things to keep in mind when considering the melodramatic ending of Romeo and Juliet. First of all, just as modern movie going audiences want to see a certain amount of car chases and broken glass–theatre goers of Shakespeare’s day wanted to see a certain amount of character death. This is the reason for the high body count at the end of Hamlet, and it stretches all the way back to the invention of theatre. The greeks wrote their comedies as slapstick as possible, and their tragedies with as much gore as possible, because that’s what people wanted to see. It’s not a proper tragedy unless everybody dies. Shakespeare was following along with what was popularly done, and considered “proper” theatre.
But that doesn’t mean he was writing mindless drivel. He managed to take those stage conventions and use them to his advantage. He didn’t kill Romeo and Juliet just because he wanted a tragedy. He used their deaths (and the entire play) to make an extremely valuable point about the high cost of revenge, about the long-lasting suffering that can be caused by hatred, and how war most often takes the lives of the innocent rather than the guilty. A proper greek tragedy would have had Juliet’s mother take poison in remorse, and Romeo’s father hang himself in the city square. Shakespeare had them embracing over their children’s bodies, vowing there would be no more blood shed. (For an even more detailed breakdown of Romeo and Juliet, here’s an article I wrote two years ago, vigorously defending it.)
It is simply not possible to overrate William Shakespeare–the contributions he made not only to the English language, but also to our culture, and the way we write stories. He is the most quoted writer in the world, second only to some of the biblical authors. We are fond of celebrating our grandmasters of fantasy and science fiction, but an even greater honor is the one we reserve for the Bard–Grandmaster of the English Language. So go forth, and read Shakespeare, and be educated, and learn to be a better writer. Who better to learn the English language from than the man who helped create it?
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.
–A Midsummer Night’s Dream