Exeter, Devon UK • Jun 15, 2024 • VOL XII

Exeter, Devon UK • [date-today] • VOL XII
Home Arts & Lit Does the Writing of Shakespeare Shape Society?

Does the Writing of Shakespeare Shape Society?

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“If Shakespeare had never existed,” he asked, “would the world have differed so much from what it is today? Does the progress of civilisation depend upon great men?” Virginia Woolf posed this question in her 1927 novel To the Lighthouse.

We spend years of our life studying Shakespeare: his works surround us, from our GCSE revision notes; to films like The Lion King and 10 Things I Hate About You; to every time your dad tells a terrible joke (Shakespeare first penned a “Knock Knock! Who’s there?” joke). But apart from driving us crazy over the exam period as we go over and over Brutus’ betrayal of Caesar or Romeo’s infatuation with Juliet, do Shakespeare’s works really influence our society? Or is he simply a man whose pretentious plays have been given way more credit than they are due?

Woolf’s question is an interesting one. As a history student, we are taught that to break down progress as dependent on great men alone would be a complete disservice to the realities of the world – history is no longer HIS story. Progress cannot be measured by the accomplishments of great men, nor can it be measured by the “lot of the average human”. Progress is subjective. Yes, we are technologically more superior, but are we intellectually? Or mentally? The passage in To the Lighthouse continues to claim that the arts are a decoration, unnecessary to the average human life, and Shakespeare is certainly classed as such.

Progress cannot be measured by the accomplishments of great men, nor can it be measured by the “lot of the average human”

Nevertheless, Shakespeare remains at the forefront of our list of influential figures. In 1623, Ben Johnson (another playwright) pronounced him as “not of an age but for all time” – his work is always different. This notion has been proved countless times, as each performance of each and every one of his plays offers a different interpretation – whether Julius Caesar is set in a war-torn African state, or As You Like It is set in a solar-powered forest of the future, each story can be retold and applied to countless situations. That is the beauty of Shakespeare.

His biggest contribution, however, is as inspiration. Take Romeo and Juliet, for example: the idea of star-crossed lovers has been told over and over again. It is a story we recognise, love, and one that never grows old. The drama, the love and the tragedy are things we, as readers and consumers, can never get enough of.

If he didn’t exist, however, perhaps someone else would have come along and penned the great works of English literature, and the world would not look entirely that different. The idea of Shakespeare is greater than the man himself. And while literary progress may have been affected, it is inconceivable that mankind would not have progressed without him.

The idea of Shakespeare is greater than the man himself

One could therefore argue a case for other great men – ones that have not only contributed to the literary world but have worked to change the real world too. Martin Luther King’s iconic “I have a dream” speech both helped to drive the contemporary Civil Rights Movement and has inspired a myriad of other people to state their dreams in a similar manner. Mahatma Gandhi’s numerous writings formed a plan for the Indian independence movement, and educated the world on subjects such as pacifism, ethics, diet and vegetarianism, and religion. Every speech and quote you remember has had a profound impact on many lives, whether they know it or not.

But the theory of great men is an archaic one. So, to go full circle (another Shakespeare quote for you there), one could simply argue that we are not dependent on great men at all. Every person makes some contribution to the world, every writer adds his own artistic touch to literature, whether they tell their own story, or retell someone else’s. Shakespeare should be renowned for his works but should not be given too much credit – after all, one can have too much of a good thing.


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