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Culture And Shakespeare Speaks To All People

By: Chris Warren.

Last week’s article about Shakespeare generated a lot of positive attention, and I’m really glad so many others see themselves in his work. Regular reader “Mike in Minneapolis” responded by sending me this very enjoyable piece about an African-American interpretation of Shakespeare’s King Richard III. This is a golden opportunity to continue the discussion and address the culture and adaptability of William Shakespeare and why it’s important to everyday people.

Cultural adaptability is not some obscure concept kicked around in college seminars. Simply defined, it is how culture produced by one group of people is interpreted by other groups. It’s what makes culture worth having. What good would it be if only British people had Shakespeare? Or if only the French listened to the music of classical composer Berlioz? Is there really any point of having culture if it’s not going to be shared outside the group that created it?

“‘Who owns Shakespeare?’ one might ask. You might as well ask who has the right to breathe, to dream, to express their selves…”

–playwright Carlyle Brown

It’s important to note that not all culture is good, or used for good purposes. Adolph Hitler famously used art and music as propaganda in an attempt to convince the rest of the world that the Nazis were really nice people. We all know how that turned out.

And among the pissy-pants political left here in the USA there is a disturbing fad for whining about “cultural appropriation.” It’s from liberalism’s vast collection of manufactured outrages where pouting crybabies keep their very simple minds busy by being offended over any little ethnic/racial/religious inaccuracy. For example, swooning because a sandwich was not made to their expectations. Yes, it really does get that stupid.

Keeping it positive though, culture is a society’s statement to the outside world that says “this is who we are” and “this is what is important to us.” It’s also the only thing that lasts.

William Shakespeare has been dead for 400 years, yet his work has become a timeless hallmark of British culture and a reference to what people of his time thought and felt. His plays are so adaptable that they translate to our modern lives with amazing insight.

An African-American version of a Shakespeare play could plausibly be called “cultural appropriation,” assuming one even accepts the premise of that ridiculous concept in the first place. I absolutely do not accept it and think anyone who does is either an outright dimwit and/or has no understanding of why culture exits. King Richard III being interpreted with an African-American world view is a creative expression that should be celebrated. It demonstrates Shakespeare’s power and universal appeal.

William Shakespeare probably did not foresee the vast impact his work would have on the world, but certainly he wanted it to be appreciated by someone beyond the theatergoers who attended his live performances. Cultural adaptability is when something has meaning not just in place but also in time.

Those who create culture usually never know what ultimately becomes of it because its true value may not show up for many years, possibly centuries. Shakespeare would be pleased, I think, that a group of 19th century African-Americans found something in King Richard III that they could identify with and call their own. Shakespeare’s work said something back then that we’re still listening to now. What higher honor could any culture be given?

william shakespeare

Why William Shakespeare Still Matters.

By: Chris Warren

All languages are orphans. What I mean is that none of them can trace their pedigree back to any single source or person. There is an exception: English, specifically, the version of it spoken today. While it is technically true that no one “invented” the English language, the way English speakers express themselves would be very different but for the works of William Shakespeare, who died 400 years ago this month and coincidentally was also born in April.

Shakespeare was respected in his time, yet he was not particularly well known outside of London and was not recognized as a literary giant until well after his death when scholars revisited his work in the early 1800s. By the late 1800s he was a bona fide legend; starting in the 1900s  and extending until now, William Shakespeare has been a major component of high school literature courses and there are entire college degree programs dedicated exclusively to him.

A lot of information about William Shakespeare’s personal life is missing. His exact birthday is unknown, and no one living today is even sure what he looked like. He never sat for a direct formal portrait; the familiar pictures of him were created from second hand descriptions given by people who knew him. Shakespeare’s unintentionally mysterious life adds to the intrigue and legacy of his writing.

His words are reflections in a literary mirror reaching out across the centuries.

So why should modern day people like us care about the ideas of some scribe who’s been dead for four centuries? After all, we live in the internet age where trends and fads can have a shelf life of just a few hours, sometimes less.

Pop culture trends are indeed ephemeral. Four hundred years from now, no one is going to care about Kim Kardashian’s tweets. Shakespeare did not say things for the purpose of being popular or seizing a moment. He spoke of anger, jealousy, love, hate, sadness, joy, sorrow and every other possible emotion in a way that is ageless.

Because William Shakespeare’s language of emotion is universal, we can find ourselves in passages from Romeo & Juliet or Othello or any of the other plays & sonnets. His words are reflections in a literary mirror reaching out across the centuries. Anyone who even casually studies Shakespeare will eventually arrive at that moment of enlightenment when they exclaim to themselves, “Hey! He’s talking about me!”

It’s exciting to read literature from so long ago and feel as if the author knew us personally. William Shakespeare created a magic formula of words that never becomes obsolete because culture constantly changes but the human condition does not. Anger is the same as it was in the late 1500s. So is love, jealousy, and all the rest. Shakespeare took what is common to all people across all ages and gave it a voice.

Interpreting emotion with such startling permanence would alone have made William Shakespeare the Greatest of the Great, but he did not end it there. He wrote 37 plays and 154 sonnets and from that body of work came thousands of words and phrases that we contemporary English speakers use every day without realizing their origins.

No single person has contributed anywhere near as much to the English vocabulary. If we removed all remnants of Shakespeare’s endowment to English, it would be immensely less diverse and would arguably not be the globally dominant language it is today. No other language has so many ways to express the same idea, and William Shakespeare is one of the reasons why.

Shakespeare does not make Shakespeare great. Humanity makes Shakespeare great. We, us, supplied the raw materials. All he did was identify the greatness and provide the conduit that converts it into language.

There is a little bit of William Shakespeare in every statement you utter and every sentence you read, as well as every feeling and emotion you experience. For sure, Shakespeare did not invent the the English language, but his literary DNA is inextricably woven into it in a way no one else’s is. That’s why no one can get away from him even if they don’t know him. That’s why Shakespeare still matters.