Why Shakespeare’s Works Still Live On
William Shakespeare is perhaps the greatest playwright in the history of mankind. He is a global literary icon who is known in every country, city, and household across the globe. Although he has lived and died during the Elizabethan era, his works have survived
hundreds of years of change and remain alive and unaltered to this very day. His works, which are considered literary masterpieces, are regarded highly by writers, teachers, and students, since they are epitomes of literature in its various forms. He perfected a wide array of genres- tragedies, comedies, romances, and histories. He even blended some of these genres together and formed the romantic comedy. Shakespeare is popular in the educational world due to the fact that his works encompass universal themes that apply to every time period and place, a diverse set of characters which enable readers to connect with and learn truths about human nature from, and rich language that teaches various literary devices and techniques and how to use them effectively.
In his play A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare introduces universal themes that are timeless; they remain relevant to this very day. The main themes introduced in this play include love, magic, and dreams verses reality. His main focus in this particular play is love. The characters in this play experience the joys and hardships of love. They portray the idea that when people, especially youngsters, are in love, they rely on their instincts rather than reason and therefore act impulsively and rather foolishly. The power and force of love disables their ability to reason. In other words, one can say that love is blind. This theory of love is presented when Helena states: “Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind; And therefore is winged cupid painted blind. Nor hath love’s mind of any judgment taste” (1.1.240-242). In this quote, Helena clarifies that when a person is in love, he or she lacks judgment and is therefore blind. The blindness and irrationality of love is also portrayed through the characters’ actions. When Hermia elopes with her lover Lysander, and thus risks her life by defying her father’s order, her foolishness due to love is shown. The blindness of love is also depicted when Helena informs Demetrius the plans of Hermia and Lysander in hopes of regaining his love. She does not thoroughly think through her plans before putting them into action, since not only does she betray the trust of her childhood friend Hermia, but she also pushes Demetrius farther away from her, rather than bringing him closer as she had hoped. After being informed of their plan, Demetrius chases after Hermia, causing Helena’s plan to win him back to ultimately backfire. Despite her failure to win his heart, Helena persists in pursuing Demetrius. Even though Helena is aware that her love is unrequited: “the more I love, the more he hateth me” (1.1.205), she still blindly follows him. Both her blindness and foolishness are shown when she degrades herself and loses her sense of pride and self-esteem: “I am your spaniel, and Demetrius, the more you beat me, I will fawn on you. Use me but as your spaniel; spurn me, strike me, neglect me, lose me; only give me leave to follow you.” (2.1.210-214). This shows how pathetic and desperate a person can be, and the things they will do to get love in return. The characteristic Shakespeare gave to Helena is sadly a characteristic that is visible in the world today. People, especially teenagers, take whatever measures in order to win the hearts of those they love. In addition, this blindness is also portrayed when Demetrius and Lysander nearly engage in a duel in order to gain Helena’s love. This is when they are each under the influence of the potion’s spell and are blindly in love with Helena and this power of love pushes them to extreme measures. They would willingly fight one another and endanger their lives in order to win Helena’s heart. Puck’s comment on the four lovers further signifies their foolishness: “What fools these mortals be!”(3.2.116). This impulsiveness due to love is visible in the world today since people, especially teenagers, act impetuously and irrationally when it comes to love.
Shakespeare also shows that love can cause jealousy, which in turn, can cause a person to resort to revenge and perhaps, even violence. This is portrayed when Oberon is jealous of Titania’s love for the Indian boy. In order to punish her and seek revenge, he orders Puck to put her under a spell in order to force her to fall in love with Bottom, who is quite ridiculously stupid and has a face that is transformed to that of an ass. In addition, due to jealousy caused by love, Helena and Hermia fight, causing their childhood friendship to collapse thus jeopardizing their trust in one another.
In addition, there is an unbalance of love throughout this play since in the beginning, both Demetrius and Lysander love Hermia while Helena is cast aside. When the fairies meddle and the characters are under the influence of the magic spell, the unbalance in love becomes even more confusing since both Demetrius and Lysander fall in love with Helena and this time, Hermia is the one left unloved. The unbalance in love depicted throughout this play remains visible to this very day. Everywhere we look, we see that not everyone possesses the hearts of those they love. Although some couples are fortunate enough to love each other, there are plenty of other people who don’t receive the same feelings of love they feel towards someone. The whole world seems to be as if it is a complicated and unbalanced love equation.
Shakespeare also teaches readers that with love comes sacrifice. Love is never easy and as Lysander states, “the course of true love never did run smooth.” (1.1.136). During the play, Hermia sacrifices the relationship with her father in order to be with her true love. Her father Egeus wants her to marry Demetrius, but since Hermia’s heart belongs to Lysander, she refuses to do so and refuses to love someone based on the judgment of another person: “O hell, to choose love by another’s eyes!” (1.1.142). Despite her father’s disapproval, she elopes with Lysander and thus risks her life and destroys her ties relations with her father.
Magic is another theme in the play and it shows the ‘supernatural’ power of love that a human being cannot choose to avoid, just like a spell. This is symbolized by the love potion which brings out the ‘magical powers’ of love. The love potion also tells us that love, like magic, can control us in its own way and can make us blind. Magic contributes largely to create major conflict in the play by creating chaos and tensions. This is seen when Puck mistakenly applies the love potion to Lysander’s eyelids and he falls head over heels for Helena and abandons his former love, Hermia: “Content with Hermia? No, I do repent the tedious minutes I with her spent. Not Hermia, but Helena I love.” (2.2.120). Demetrius is also under the influence of the magic spell and falls in love with the lady he once despised, Helena. The effect of magic on these characters also shows how capricious emotions are and how they change so abruptly. In addition, magic contributes the dream-like ambiance in the play and makes all the bizarre events in the play acceptable. Although magic creates complications in the play, it ultimately re-stabilizes the situation and resolves tensions created throughout the play. Shakespeare uses magic to make events more suspenseful and cause a sense of concord through discord. People accept the fact that Demetrious and Lysander both loved Hermia, then they both loved Helena, and finally everything was resolved and the love equation reaches its equilibrium. If magic was not involved, people would not have accepted the somewhat bizarre events. Thus, magic ties the loose ends in this novel. Shakespeare’s choice to incorporate magic in his play helps broaden the imagination of his readers and enhance their creative abilities. In fact, the fairies in his play A Midsummer Night’s Dream inspired four hundred years of stories and pictures of these butterfly-winged creatures living in the woods. Although some may argue that magic is unreal, it still has an influence on our society, since reading about magic helps readers escape the harsh realities of their lives and visit a dreamlike world, causing them to be more imaginative thinkers. Magic can still be seen today whether it is in plays, movies, or novels such as Harry Potter and The Chronicles Narnia. This shows that magic continues to inspire our society and have an impact on it.
A third theme introduced in the play A Midsummer Night’s Dream is dreams verses reality. This is portrayed by the two distinctive settings Shakespeare uses in this play; Athens and the enchanted forest. Athens is a harsh, realistic, and lawful place while the forest is an imaginative place where possibilities are endless. Despite the contrast between the two different settings, they complement each other and add a sense of balance to the play. This theme portrays the idea that dreams are necessary to establish reality, since without the ‘dream’ in this particular play, the equation of love would not have been balanced and there would have been no marriage between each of the two lovers. This shows how dreams play a crucial role in the lives of human beings and its significance gives A Midsummer Night’s Dream its name. This theme remains important in our everyday life, for nothing can be achieved without dreaming. To accomplish great things, one must not only act, but also dream; not only play, but also believe.
Shakespeare effectively portrays a diverse set of characters in this play. He uses various character types such as stereotypes and archetypes in his play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. These types of character are present to this very day and remain visible in our daily life. For example, the act of stereotyping is something very common nowadays as much as it used to be over four hundred years ago. We can still see stereotyping in books, movies, as well as our everyday lives where people are constantly being discriminated based on their religions, cultural backgrounds, social statuses, and nationalities. As for this play, a person may say that the character Hermia is stereotyped as a rich, beautiful girl who gets everything she desires including love. It is much like today’s society in which people are stereotyped as spoiled if they are rich. Another example of a stereotypical character in this play is the character Bottom. He is the actor who always wants to steal the show and seems to be more interested in his costume rather than his role; he spends much more time worrying about the minor details of the performance such as the color of beard he should wear rather than worrying about his lines: “I will discharge it in either you straw-color beard, your orange—tawny beard, your purple-in-grain beard, or your French-crown-color beard, you perfit yellow.” (1.2.89-92). Bottom thus verifies many of our cultural stereotypes of actors. Another type of character introduced in this play is archetypes. An example of an archetype is the duke of Athens, Theseus who is portrayed as a fair and just king: “What say you Hermia?”(1.1.47). This shows the readers how Theseus is the epitome of justice due to the fact that he acts fairly towards people of all statuses. Theseus states this quote when Egeus turns to him in order to discuss his daughter’s decision and how the severe punishment should be enforced if she goes against his wishes. In response, Theseus tries to connect with Hermia in order to reach an understanding in which both sides are content. Theseus is also the true image Shakespeare draws for Queen Elizabeth, flattering her through his plays.
In addition, Shakespeare uses only a few methods of characterization. He depicted the character’s personalities and qualities through their dialogues and how other characters feel about them. He did not include a lot of physical description since he wanted the readers to use their imagination and be able to relate to these characters. Another technique he used was creating different plots with different characters of various social statuses and slowly bringing them together as the play develops. This was intended to show that even people who are worlds apart can meet and interact at some point in their lifetimes. This also makes it easier for each person in the audience to relate to the character most resembling his or her own self, engaging the audience further in the play.
In the characters that Shakespeare uses in his plays, they are sometimes successful and at other times their lives are full of pain, suffering, and failure. Shakespeare skillfully uses his understanding of human nature to enhance these connections and shape his texts and intuitive relationship with his audiences. His great understanding of human nature just adds more to his fame. This is because he was able to find universal human qualities and put them in a dramatic situation creating characters that are timeless. Nevertheless he had the ability to create characters that are highly individual human beings in which their struggles in life are universal. Through the actions of his characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he teaches his audience that when one is in love, the ability to reason diminishes and his or her emotions alter their perceptions. This is portrayed when Hermia willingly elopes with Lysander and thus, risks her life. This can also be seen in the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet where the tragic hero of the play, Romeo, is in constant agony with love: “Alas, that love, whose view is muffled still, Should, without eyes, see pathways to his will! Where shall we dine?—O me! What fray was here? Yet tell me not, for I have heard it all. Here’s much to do with hate but more with love. Why then, O brawling love, O loving hate, O anything of nothing first created! O heavy lightness, serious vanity, misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms! Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health, Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is! This love feel I, that feel no love in this.” (1.1.101-110). From this quote, the reader can comprehend how Romeo is very much in love with someone who does not love exchange his love in return. So as an act of recoil, this young, foolish, impetuous, teenager rushes into what he thinks is falling in love with Juliet, who supposedly returns the same feelings towards him. Yet all would be perfect except for the fact that Romeo and Juliet’s families are sworn enemies. Thus it is not possible for them to ever be together. This bitter rivalry causes the two lovers to rebel without their parents’ knowledge, leading up to many negative results such as the death of Romeo’s friend, Mercutio, and finally the suicide of both Romeo and Juliet due to a misunderstanding. The reason why readers perhaps enjoy Romeo and Juliet the most out of all of Shakespeare’s play is possibly because they can relate to it and can learn from Romeo how it is not wise to rush into love. Yet at the same time the reader can obviously see the human nature within Romeo and understand his actions since it is not always easy to not have someone you know you are meant to be with, like in this case. Another example of human nature portrayed within Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream is when Helena is full of jealousy and she discovers that the man she loves, Demetrius, is truly in love with her best friend, Hermia, rather than in love with her: “Call you me “fair”? That “fair” again unsay. Demetrius loves your fair. O happy fair!” (1.1. 181-182). Shakespeare shows that it is part of human nature to feel jealousy when the person one loves is in love with someone else. Shakespeare also teaches his audience that emotions change and are not everlasting and this is part of human nature. Throughout this play, the characters’ feelings towards certain characters change very abruptly and this portrays the idea that emotions and feelings change all the time. This is portrayed when both Demetrius and Lysander are in love with Hermia, and then are madly in love with Helena. In the end, Lysander is in love with Hermia once again while Demetrius is in love with Helena, thus causing the tangled love equation to finally reach its equilibrium. The characters’ actions and feelings teach the readers various truths about human nature. Through these characters, they not only connect to them, but they also understand themselves better and gain a better understanding of the world around them.
One thing that fascinates everybody, especially today, is Shakespeare’s unique language. Not only does his old English style seem elegant now, but it was also very easy for the audience to understand during Shakespeare’s lifetime, which is one of the main reasons why Shakespeare’s works have gained popularity at the time, and in turn, survived to this day. In addition to this, he blended grand, poetic language with simple, everyday language in order to attract both the educated and uneducated. For example, the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream speak in fancy, poetic language and this is shown when the fairy says on its first appearance: “Over hill, over dale, thorough bush, thorough brier, over park, over pale, thorough flood, thorough fire; I do wander everywhere, swifter than the moon’s sphere. And I serve the Fairy Queen, to dew her orbs upon the green. The cowslips tall her pensioners be; in their gold coats spots you see; those be rubies, fairy favors; in those freckles live their savors. I must go seek some dewdrops here and hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear.” (2.1.2-15). This language, enriched with imagery and poetry, attracted the upper class of educated people. On the other hand, the craftsmen speak in simple, everyday language in order to attract the uneducated. This is shown in parts like: “I grant you, friends, if you should fright the discretion but to hand us. But I will aggravate my voice so that I will roar you as gently as any sucking dove. I will roar you an ‘twere any nightingale”(1.2.43-46). If all the play was written in the enriched poetic language, the uneducated (which were a majority at that time) would not have understood, and thus Shakespeare’s plays would not have gained all this popularity and might not have even survived to this day.
Symbolism usually plays a major role in Shakespeare’s various plays, giving it a lot of intensity and depth. What makes Shakespeare’s symbolism even more unique is that he uses nature and elements from culture as his symbols; even the setting is symbolic. For example, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare uses Athens as the setting of the play to symbolize order, and made the lovers flee to the woods; a place where the Athenian law couldn’t be applied. Since the woods are associated with wild animals and the fairies that rule it, it symbolizes a chaotic area where magic flowers and the lovers, like animals, are driven more by their instincts than their brains. The night also helps emphasize this, for in the dark woods anything can happen. The darkness of the night also symbolizes the blindness of love, which we see very clearly through the tangled love ties that develop later on. Most of the events of the play took place in a moonlit area of the forest, and since during Shakespeare’s time it was believed that the over-exposure to the moon’s rays led to insanity, the moon is a symbol of lunacy. It was also a symbol of fickleness because its shape changes every night. In fact, the moon was mentioned twenty-eight times in the play, which is also very symbolic, for that is a day before the moon completes a full cycle. Perhaps this indicates how the play indeed has an advance to its peak of action when the full moon arose and then the action slowly faded away as the moon disappears in the sky. But the cycle is not complete, since permanent changes have been made and, unlike the moon, the play doesn’t end where it started. Even the title of the play is symbolic, because a mid-summer’s night is the longest night of the year, and even the lovers say this, for example, Hermia says: “O weary night, O long and tedious night, Abate thy hours! Shine, comforts, from the east,” (3.2.460). It’s clear from the way she speaks that this night was not a normal one, and that’s why it fits all this action. Midsummer night was also the evening of a grand festival for spirits. Even Oberon and Titania are symbolic characters; their language which is sometimes poetic like the fairies and sometimes normal shows the mix between their supernatural powers and human passions and desires. Symbolism was also used in another Shakespearian play, The Merchant of Venice. This play is set in Venice, Italy, a city that is now associated with romance, clearly reflecting the characters’ romantic relationships. The moon is again used as a symbol when the characters Jessica, Nerissa and Portia reveal their double identities as members of the court. They are sitting in the moonlight, and the moon, as previously mentioned, symbolizes fickleness and change, indicating an important shift in the play. All of these symbols are the biggest of example of how every word Shakespeare said meant something, reflecting the depth of his plays that one is still inspired by till this day.
Another one of Shakespeare’s talents is changing a character’s language to show
the way that character feels. For example, the lovers normally speak in rhyming couplets: “Call you me “fair”? That “fair” again unsay. Demetrius loves your fair. O happy fair! Your eyes are lodestars and your tongue’s sweet air more tunable than lark to shepherd’s ear” (1.1.184). Helena says this at the very beginning in the palace when Hermia innocently asks her: “Godspeed, fair Helena. Whither away?” However, this language changes when the lovers enter the forest, under the pressure of emotions generated from the confused situation and the lovers soon give up their rhyming couplets and use blank verses instead: “Have you conspired, have you with these contrived, to bait me with this foul derision? Is all the counsel we two have shared, the sisters’ vows, the hours that we have spent when we have chid the hasty footed time for parting us – O is all forgot?” (3.2.201). Helena says this to Hermia when both Lysander and Demetrius are under the love spell and start flattering her endlessly. She is clearly confused and the absence of the romantic couplets she used in the first act reveals this. On the other hand-side, Lysander and Demetrius, who are under a love spell during this time, continue to speak in an extremely ‘magically’ elegant poetic language: “O Helena, goddess, nymph, perfect divine! To what my love shall I compare thine eyne? Crystal is muddy. O, how ripe in show, they lips, those kissing cherries, tempting grow!” (3.2.140) Demetrius, who bitterly hated Helena, is now flattering her; using a metaphor to transform her lips into cherries in blossom. Shakespeare even uses this effect with Hermia, to express her happiness: “Dark night, that from the eye his function takes, The ear more quick of apprehension makes; Wherein it doth impair the seeing sense, it pays the hearing double recompense. Thou art not by mine eye, Lysander, found; Mine ear, I thank it, brought me to thy sound.” (3.2.181). Hermia says this when she finally finds Lysander in the forest. All these simple changes have a big impact on making the play clearer and bringing each character further into life and making them more realistic. This method of expressing a character’s feelings is still used today, though in a simpler way, like making a character stammer in the middle of a sentence to indicate nervousness.
Allusions are a key element in making Shakespeare’s plays more realistic, and
glorifying his characters for emphasis. For example, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Oberon, King of the fairies, says: “Fetch me this herb, and be thou here again ere the leviathan can swim a league” (2.1.179), emphasizing how fast Puck should bring him the ‘love-in-idleness’ flower. The leviathan is a monstrous sea creature mentioned in the Bible. This shows how Shakespeare links the Bible and weaves it’s stories into his own. The importance of love is also emphasized by his multiple allusions to many important figures in Greek mythology in the ten lines: “My good Lysander! I swear to thee, by Cupid’s strongest bow, By his best arrow with the golden head, By the simplicity of Venus’ doves, By that which knitteth souls and prospers loves, And by that fire which burn’d the Carthage queen, When the false Troyan under sail was seen, By all the vows that ever men have broke, In number more than ever women spoke, In that same place thou hast appointed me, To-morrow truly will I meet with thee. (1.1.168-178). In these lines only, he refers to Cupid: god of love, Venus: goddess of love, and Dido: who loved Aeneas and Troyan (or Aeneas) who was a hero of the Trojan War and the mythological founder of Rome. All of these allusions appeal to the audience, bringing the story closer to their minds’ grasp and revealing the Greek influence on Shakespeare’s plays.
Imagery is valid in Shakespeare’s plays to stimulate the audience’s imagination. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream nature and animal imagery helps the audience picture the setting. An example of this is in Act 2, scene 1: “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, where oxlips and the nodding violet grows, quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine, with sweet musk-roses and with eglantine: there sleeps Titania sometime of the night, lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight; and there the snake throws her enamell’d skin, weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in.” (249-256). This helps give emphasis to the ‘enchanted forest’ atmosphere. On the other hand: “You spotted snakes with double tongue, thorny hedgehogs, be not sen; newts and blind-worms, do no wrong, come not near our fairy queen. Philomel, with melody sing in our lullaby; lulla lulla lullaby, lulla, lulla, lullaby: never harm, nor spell nor charm, come our lovely lady nigh; so, good night, with lullaby. Weaving spiders, come not here; hence, you long-legg’d spinners, hence! Beetles black, approach not near; worm nor snail, do no offence.” (2.2.9-24”. Here, imagery is used to emphasize the spooky creatures that inhabit the forest. Imagery is still an important ingredient in present day novels, and this helps engage the readers in the play and use his or her imagination.
Though written during the Elizabethan era, Shakespeare’s words have survived during the course of hundreds of years and remain unchanged. His works still effectively engage the readers and have an impact upon their hearts and minds. His works deal with universal themes which can be applied to any time and place. One can draw parallels between the issues Shakespeare deals with in his plays and the problems people face today. In addition, the diverse set of characters he creates enables the audience to relate to them. This is because people perceive themselves in these characters. Also through the errors these characters make, the audience can learn about human nature and behavior, which in effect, helps understand themselves better. Shakespeare’s use of eloquent and rich language provides students with a broad knowledge of literary style and technique, while serving to develop and improve writing skills. His themes, characters, and language make reading his works a truly valuable and rewarding experience.