Books + Comics

Literally the Best Thing Ever: Shakespeare

He’s everywhere, in one way or another.

Illustration by Leanna

Everyone knows who William Shakespeare is, of course, because of his insanely huge and awesome body of work; but there’s surprisingly little concrete knowledge out there about the man himself, his actual life. He moved to London around 1586, but his plays didn’t appear on the city’s stages until 1592; scholars call the years in between his “lost years.” How fun.

Frankly, I love the mystery that surrounds Shakespeare. It’s so different from the cult of celebrity nowadays, where we consume all the minute life details of almost anyone. But for all his mystery, no one besides religious figures has made such a huge impact on our culture—Shakespeare’s work is second only to the Bible in terms of best-sellers. He let his writing do the talking.

Untangling the knots of the Shakespeare conspiracy theories, what we (almost definitely) know for sure is that William Shakespeare was baptized on April 26, 1564, in Stratford-Upon-Avon, England. Sorry, Italy—he may have loved your country enough to set many of his plays there, but we’re keeping him. But it’s remarkable that so many people from so many places would like to claim ownership of Shakespeare, to forge a connection with him. I do this too. Shakespeare and I share the same birth county and birth month (maybe even the same day—only his baptism date is recorded, and I like to think we share April 24).

When you grow up in England, Shakespeare is just one of those things you take for granted. You absorb his cultural significance from an early age, and you’re aware for as long as you can remember of his “greatness”—not just as a writer, but as a symbol and icon of English history. When you are young there are cartoons and Animated Tales to introduce you. You are taught a separate play each school year, and you tell yourself you can swallow and comprehend every monologue, every soliloquy, every extremely outdated sex joke. But you can’t—and that is a great thing. I’ve felt Shakespeare’s presence since I was little, and I will continue to learn more about and from his work until the day I die. One of the monologues in As You Like It reflects on “the seven ages” of development (infancy, childhood, the lover, the fighter, justice, old age, and death), and I see all those ages reflected in all of his plays and sonnets. A lot of people like to question the authorship of Shakespeare’s work; I think it’s because his words seem to know everything, more than any one person should. His words are able to reflect, with glimmering accuracy, every emotion and every age.

Shakespeare is everywhere, in one way or another. I continually find amazement in how his words can make ripples in every social and cultural context. This year there is the World Shakespeare Festival, which has directors and actors from around the world doing plays across the UK; in the past the Royal Shakespeare Company has staged his plays in all kinds of different languages. One year my family and I saw A Midsummer Night’s Dream spoken partly in Hindi. It was beautiful.

Some of my favorite art, music, and dance is based on Shakespeare. Not to mention the countless film adaptations, old and new. The teen versions are, of course, amazing.

Reading and watching Shakespeare today is proof that humans haven’t really changed since his time. He covers power, youth, love, and dying for love. Innuendos abound, as does genuinely funny and clever comedy. Sex has always been on everyone’s minds. People still kill one another—and themselves. Ophelia went mad, Lady Macbeth became obsessed with washing imaginary blood from her hands—what more could you possibly want?

My favorite character is the wise and hilarious Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing, a woman who proclaims that she “would rather hear [her] dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves [her].” There is nothing more satisfying than learning by heart Shakespeare’s one-liners. And nothing more dramatic nor heart-rending than the speeches in his tragedies. Delving into all of his characters and his plays, and noticing new things every time, watching words come alive off the page but be so old and having been spoken by so many other people through time, then having them be spoken by you, alone in your bedroom, feels like actual magic.

I believe that William Shakespeare gave the world all of those words, but in the end, does it really matter? He is more than just one man now, he is a whole world. All of his work gave voice to basic human emotions that resonated not only in 16th century England, but through time and throughout the whole world. I bet that even in deep space, Shakespeare has a fan club. As his friend Ben Jonson said, “He was not of an age, but for all time.” ♦

49 Comments

  • Nina_8 September 19th, 2012 11:09 PM

    Love this, I am totally a self-proclaimed Shakespeare fanatic/nerd. Last spring I got to play Rosalind in my school’s production of As You Like It and it was so fantastic. If anybody has any suggestions for favorite plays, let me know, because I get to direct this year!

  • Adrienne September 19th, 2012 11:20 PM

    Although I’m not a total Shakespeare aficionado, every work of his I’ve read I’ve absolutely loved!! So far, Macbeth is my favorite. And dude I watched that Macbeth animation last year and was so spoooked! Lady Macbeth is really creepy.

    I really need to go to the library and check out some more Shakespeare plays.

    http://theaverageasiangirl.blogspot.com

  • kendallkh September 19th, 2012 11:29 PM

    I was kinda meh on Shakespeare until we read Hamlet last year and watched the Kenneth Branagh movie version in class. That was the first Shakespeare play I ever really got and it totally blew me away.

  • actressgirl September 19th, 2012 11:38 PM

    What a lot of people don’t realize is that. for it’s time, Shakespeare was not intended to be high art. Rather is was written for the “common people” sort of speak. Basically Shakespeare was the Dallas, 90210, and Melrose Place of it’s day.

    • NotReallyChristian September 20th, 2012 4:59 AM

      Hm – yes and no. It’s absolutely meant to get some laughs from the groundlings, but his plays were also extensively produced at court. So they’re multi-layered more than anything – on the one hand dirty jokes and gory death scenes, on the other beautiful poetry and stuff.

  • Abby September 19th, 2012 11:51 PM

    I love Shakespeare… Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet (which is kind of a sucky love story…) all the way!

    Also…. do yourself a favor and watch the Shakespeare-themed videos that Sassy Gay Friend has done on youtube. They’re amazing. Here’s one to get you started:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jnvgq8STMGM

    • all-art-is-quite-useless September 20th, 2012 12:22 PM

      Romeo and Juliet isn’t a sucky love story! I thought it was before I read it, but it’s totally not…

  • Ruby B. September 20th, 2012 12:00 AM

    OMG this article is perfect, Naomi.

    • Naomi September 20th, 2012 1:37 PM

      Thanks perfect Ruby <3

  • missblack September 20th, 2012 12:49 AM

    SHAKESPEARE!!!! God, I love his plays. (And the sonnets, too, obviously.) I love how they’re absolutely gorgeous and poetic and lovely and yet they are filled with dirty jokes and really hilarious situational comedy. It’s like the best thing that ever existed, really.

    ALSO, my favorite Shakespeare adaptation ever has got to be 10 Things I Hate About You. I love that movie so much. So Much. Though I am very excited for Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing.

    Little&Trivial

  • asleeptillnoon September 20th, 2012 1:02 AM

    OMG, YES! Rookie + Shakespeare = AMAZINGNESS. I didn’t even need to read this before I re-tweeted and liked it. I fell in love with Shakespeare my Freshman year of high school, which is usually when people begin hating him, haha. I love the characters, I love the language. And when my 11th grade English teacher revealed that the epitaph on his grave included a curse… my mind was blown.

  • BritishFish September 20th, 2012 1:12 AM

    Naomi are we the same person? This was perfect and woo for England girls. Although I was only there from birth to the age of one but still..

    • Naomi September 20th, 2012 1:43 PM

      Yes, we are the same person – sorry I didn’t tell you all these years <3

  • ivoire September 20th, 2012 1:52 AM

    As much as I have dreaded studying Shakespeare in high school, I was pleasantly suprised to find that I like his work! I mean, so many sexual innuendos!

  • SincerelyWrong September 20th, 2012 2:01 AM

    Yesss!
    I have been in three Shakespeare plays: The Tempest (Iris), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Helena) and Much Ado About Nothing (Beatrice!).
    I have loved every minute of it, and memorized so many of lines that weren’t even mine that I often live in a Shakespeare haze the entirety of the play-time and a couple months afterwards.

    • Naomi September 20th, 2012 1:44 PM

      You are SO lucky to have been in 3 plays! I haven’t had a role in one yet and that is all I want from life

  • HollieLillian September 20th, 2012 3:32 AM

    Yay i’m british! I love the bit about Beatrice, I was just waiting for her badass-ery to be mentioned. Much ado was the first proper shakespeare play I read, and it was what made me like his work too. Once you get past the totally different writing style you can really appreciate how beautifully it’s written, it’s literally like poetry!

    http://forthequainthearted.blogspot.com/

  • bugaleeto September 20th, 2012 7:04 AM

    “may I come near thou beauty with my nails?” I Love Shakespearean insults

  • Lillypod September 20th, 2012 8:45 AM

    yAYYY this is soooo awesome.
    i was raised on a steady diet of shakespeare before i could read. But my sister is the real fanatic, she can quote whole passages…visiting his house and town is amazing, although its super touristy now.
    The last play I saw by him was the Merry Wives of Windsor. It was in the grounds of a country house and rained for almost the entire play (go england)! But the actors carried on brilliantly.

  • miss_kayce September 20th, 2012 8:58 AM

    personal favorites: “titus andronicus” is the best (worst?) of his tragedies, and “midsummer night’s dream” is my favorite comedy. the adaptation with michelle pfeiffer and calista flockhart is *amazing*. and despite feeling somewhat ambivalent towards the play itself, i can never forget the priceless work of art that is baz luhrman’s “romeo + juliet”.

  • truepenny September 20th, 2012 9:33 AM

    For some reason the first time I read “his friend, Betsey Johnson, said…” and I didn’t even questions that Betsey would somehow be friends with Shakespeare.

    Also, I love Shakespeare. Especially Hamlet! I did an entire term seminar on Hamlet and we still didn’t solve all its mystery. It was also the best term ever.

  • RaineFall September 20th, 2012 10:43 AM

    Brit here too! I’ve loved Shakespeare since I was 10 and saw MacBeth performed for the first time. Sadly, even though I’m a Londoner, it took me 8 more years to go see something performed at the Globe. Though that rendition of Hamlet was one of the best I’ve ever seen!
    Also if it wasn’t for Shakespeare, one of my fav movies of all time may have not been created: 10 Things I Hate About You. Even more proof that Shakespeare can transcend time.

  • emmarble September 20th, 2012 10:47 AM

    A really great paragraph is one by Bernard Levin called On Quoting Shakespeare, it lists a lot of everyday phrases we use that Shakespeare invented.

  • darksideoftherainbow September 20th, 2012 10:52 AM

    one of my favorite things to do IN THE WORLD is quote shakespeare. it really makes my day! so yes, i loved this. thanks!

  • Serena.K September 20th, 2012 11:51 AM

    Beatrice is my favorite character too! In ninth grade I’d constantly quotes lines from Much Ado About Nothing. “A bird of my tongue is better than a beast of yours!”

  • tove September 20th, 2012 2:35 PM

    Man, Shakespeare literally IS the best thing ever. When I was around thirteen I first read the Trinity (Romeo & Juliet, Macbeth, Hamlet) and I’ve worshiped this genius ever since. There are absolutely no words to describe how brilliant is his work.

  • christinachristina September 20th, 2012 2:40 PM

    Two things: How STOKED are you guys for Joss Whedon’s Much Ado that he filmed in his home with all our favorite actors?! Also, Shakespeare coined SO MANY words we use today: Zany? Gnarled? Majestic? Equivocal? Thanks, dude!

  • Indifferent Ignorance September 20th, 2012 2:41 PM

    Love this! Shakespeare’s the dude (to be said in a deep, growly voice). Also, there’s nothing outdated about those innuendos. They’re still funny, right?!

  • elise.h September 20th, 2012 2:52 PM

    This is really really spot on. This article describes the way I feel about Shakespeare so accurately that I wish I’d been the one to write it!

  • sabrina September 20th, 2012 2:55 PM

    We’ve just started looking at Much Ado About Nothing for my English Lit. class and I’m already in love with Beatrice! She’s so fesity and just a brilliant female character.

  • hellorose September 20th, 2012 3:36 PM

    Don’t forget the narrative poems! Venus & Adonis is wonderful, and while The Rape of Lucrece is a bit of a slog at times it’s well worth it.

  • Isabelle97 September 20th, 2012 4:14 PM

    Shakespeare is the man. My favourites are A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelth Night and the Tempest. So basically all the ones with sexual confusion and fairies :D

  • soretudaaa September 20th, 2012 4:55 PM

    unpopular opinion: cervantes > shakespeare.

  • KataCala September 20th, 2012 5:00 PM

    Now, I know Shakespeare is a dead white guy, but he knows his shit, so we can overlook that.

  • rockslita September 20th, 2012 5:39 PM

    This is a wonderful article, thanks for sharing!

  • Emilie September 20th, 2012 6:17 PM

    Loooove the illustration- also I absolutely agree, Shakespeare is the coolest

    • Leanna September 20th, 2012 9:34 PM

      Thank you Emilie! It was a fun researching all the historical representations of Shakespeare before doing the illustration.

      • Naomi September 21st, 2012 4:04 AM

        i really love it too leanna, i want it on my wall!

  • YangHaizi September 21st, 2012 6:30 AM

    I think Shakespeare would love Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo+Juliet

  • raquellabella September 21st, 2012 2:17 PM

    His sonnets are still the best love poems of all time. Huzzah.

    http://www.soulcandymag.wordpress.com

  • leanandmean September 21st, 2012 2:27 PM

    This article is great, more young girls need to get enthused about his work, especially the lesser known plays. I wrote and illustrated a ‘Coriolanus’ graphic novel to celebrate his epic and amazing tale, check it out at http://www.kerrycoulson.co.uk/Coriolanus

  • EmilyBurke September 21st, 2012 5:28 PM

    But we cant forget the Bronte sisters, wuthering heights is a win…
    dottedblazer.blogspot.com

  • Filia-Zissy September 26th, 2012 2:07 PM

    I really like A Midsummernight’s Dream – it’s so funny and very touching, too (if you think of poor Helena).
    We’re going to read one of Shakespeare’s plays this year at school and I’m quite excited about that… though I doubt that it will be A Midsummernight’s dream or Romeo + Juliet… Not my teacher’s style. But I’m happy with any play.

    ordinarypeopleadorable.tumblr.com

  • vengadarling November 8th, 2012 11:37 PM

    Did you know that the 2. bloodiest street fights in NYC were based on the people’s love for Shakespeare? Wrote my research paper about it and none of the teachers knew The Astor Place Riots in 1849. Really crazy story!

  • Delaney November 18th, 2012 10:10 PM

    I totally agree. Shakespeare is so underrated and incredibly brilliant. I spent two weeks of my summer with theater coaches working strictly on Shakespearean plays. It is amazing the magnitude of words he created and the influence he has had on literally every play ever. I am a total Shakespeare nerd and love every minute of it.

  • phoninghome November 23rd, 2012 4:06 PM

    Leanna, do you know the artist grayson perry? this illustration really reminds me of his stuff!

  • rats-for-candy January 2nd, 2013 8:27 PM

    I’ve visited his grave & bought a little teapot and mugs with kittens on them in Stratford! At the time, I couldn’t care less because I was 14 and had just been forced to read and analyze romeo and juliet, so, I wasn’t too fond of him.