Christmas is over. I’ll get to the joy of giving later. During the many family gatherings I was asked if William Shakespeare is still relevant today. I almost dropped my divider plate full of food accessorized with a red Solo cup. Was this a serious question? My relative stood blinking and waiting for an answer, but before I could begin a response, he added something about the confusion of “all that Old English.”
Okay, first of all, allow me to clear up the ridiculous comment that many, many people make about “Old English.” I will be very general, but it is simple enough to understand like this:
- 0-500 AD Old English (Beowulf)
- 500-1500 AD Middle English (Canterbury Tales)
- 1500-present Modern English
Where does that place Will Shakespeare? Yep, he wrote in Modern English; albeit, it was early on so he was allowed the freedom of coining many words. Every wonder why a King James Bible sounds exactly like a Shakespearean play? Uh, that was his king after the Virgin died. Now that all of that is a bit clearer, please pass that tidbit of information along . . . maybe, together, we can eradicate the misuse of what is actually Old English. I mean, for the love of all things holy, there is only 1,000 years difference between what Shakespeare wrote and what is truly Old English.
Should we still teach the Bard? Yes. William Shakespeare is quite relevant. His plays and poems are timeless, in the sense that the characters and themes transcend time. And at times, the playwright even leaps ahead many centuries, empowering his female characters or giving voice to a person of color. Have you ever seen someone who is consumed with ambition and the quest for power in today’s world? Macbeth. Have you ever been so spontaneously in love that you remember doing silly things just to get her attention? Romeo and Juliet. Have you ever known someone to absolutely hate a step parent and grieve deeply over the loss of a loved one? Hamlet. Every seen children fight over inheritance? King Lear. Ever get sick of working so that other people can sit around and do nothing? Coriolanus. You get the picture. Connecting to the base theme of the play, whether comedy or tragedy or historical, and the early Modern English falls into place and is easier understood. No, don’t shirk the language by reading a “translated” version of a play. Consume the language and embrace it. Allow me to add this little caveat: plays are meant to be seen not read, so it helps to understand and enjoy when you see what the Bard wanted you to see.
Of course, poetry is a whole different kettle of fish. Poetry, like food, has various tastes. Shakespearean Sonnets are no different. They have a set rhyme scheme in iambic pentameter; thus they are sonnets. Unlike plays, poetry is enjoyed by reading and does NOT have only one interpretation. I personally believe that is best read aloud, but maybe that is just me. If it has been a while since you watched a great play or read a bit of poetry, give William another shot.