William Shakespeare’s cultural impact can be felt every day. The way we communicate, the society we’ve continuously built upon and the media we consume have all in some way been touched by Shakespeare’s writing.
Pulling off a mass cultural shift like this is not only extremely impressive, but worth investigating. What aspects of our lives have been affected by Shakespeare in ways we’ve never even realized? What made him capture the public eye in such an all encompassing way and how can that inspire other artists to continue this tradition?
As Nelson Mandela put it in The Guardian, “Shakespeare always seems to have something to say to us.” Shakespeare’s plays consistently revolve around timeless themes and concepts; ideas of love, death, greed and madness that can’t help but capture the public eye in a unique way because of their universality.
Furthermore, Shakespeare is not conservative when it comes to fleshing out these ideas. His characters are raw and honest. The timelessness of Shakespeare’s work undoubtedly contributes to its success and impact. It remains relevant because it relates to inherently human urges and behaviors.
This works to capture humanity in a way that forces us to examine it and relate it to ourselves. So, of course, his work is bound to culturally impact our society.
In his article, Robert McCrum touches on some of the cultural impacts Shakespeare has had on our society. From innovating the English language to contributing to psychology, the list goes on and on.
Obviously, a lot of the media we consume has heavy Shakespeare influence. Film, music and literature were arguably changed forever by this one man.
Of course, we have many film and literary adaptations of Shakespeare’s works. There’s also works that were clearly impacted by Shakespearen plot lines like the Disney classic, “The Lion King,” inspired by “Hamlet.”
Beyond this, almost all work can ultimately be traced back to Shakespeare just because of his breadth of global influence. Without going too far into literary theory, it is often argued that no creative work truly stands alone and is instead placed within discourse with all works of its kind before it.
Humans are influential and influenced creatures, making originality difficult. With literary figureheads like Shakespeare in the mix who continuously touch on universal themes for the first time, it’s hard to find work that hasn’t been touched by him in some way. This can even be seen in the type of language we use.
One fact you’ve probably heard before is the sheer amount of phrases we use daily that Shakespeare coined. Phrases like “wearing my heart on my sleeve” and “love is blind” were all first said by Shakespeare.
These are just a few illustrations of Shakespeare’s mastery of language. McCrum notes that some of this mastery can be credited toward Shakespeare’s weaving of “Anglo-Saxon, continental, and classical tradition in a weave of poetry and storytelling”. He goes on to say that this use of vernacular mixed with Latin influences resulted in the English language being “remade and renewed.”
Another cultural impact McCrum discusses that stood out to me was how Shakespeare’s depictions of humanity affected psychology and our overall understanding of the human mind. For the Shakespeare class I am taking this semester, I’m currently reading “Hamlet.” His portrayal of the human mind and madness in this play are truly stunning and complex.
The common phrase from this work, “To be or not to be,” is a contemplation of suicide. This contemplation, as McCrum notes, pioneered how we view psychology through a poetic lens in post renaissance drama. A lot of Freud’s ideas about conscience, envy and desire were rooted in Shakespeare’s depictions of his characters.
Overall, Shakespeare’s work has been heavily influential on our society. So much so, that content continues to be remade. In this way, I find Shakespeare continues to deliver even after his death. He created characters and narratives that were completely fluid in regard to identity creating roles and stories for everyone.
As the world continues to catch up to Shakespeare, roles in his plays become more inclusive. Black actor, John Thompson, is disappointed in academic acting spaces for not being more inclusive in their Shakespearean works. He says on NPR, “I’m disappointed in our academic facilities that haven’t let our students of color, our LGBT students, our disabled students — that haven’t let them know this work is for them. That haven’t let them know: This work will fit you like a glove.”
Shakespeare’s works are universal in nature and made for people of all identities. This is probably one of the biggest reasons as to why it has been so culturally influential.