Why is the work of Shakespeare still captivating audiences today after 400 years? What can we learn from him to ensure lasting impact for today’s artistic expressions? Thanks to the BBC and the British Council, viewers can still enjoy ongoing streamed videos from the weekend as well as throughout the six-month online festival, Shakespeare Lives.
All over the world and throughout the year, Shakespearean events are taking place in many forms for all ages: special activities, fairs, staged productions, film festivals and much more. Shakespeare’s writing is in public domain, according to modern copyright laws, because he lived over 70 years ago. (Although contemporary adaptations of Shakespeare are under copyright, if their authors are still alive.) Beyond the fact that Shakespeare’s writing is “up for grabs,” why does Shakespeare still engage audiences around the world? What is it about Shakespeare that continues to enlighten, educate, and enrich? What can we learn from Shakespeare and the historic period in which he lived that is relevant for today?
Shakespeare was a product of the Renaissance and Reformation influences of his time under the leadership of Queen Elizabeth, who allowed both great movements to co-exist in the UK. William Shakespeare wrote with the rhythms of the human heart in unrhymed blank verse in iambic pentameter. He wrote with the best use of literary devices that appeal to the mind and ear. He wrote with great breadth and depth, as he dealt with great philosophical issues, universal themes, and complexities of his characters, as he was influenced by great Greek playwrights who were of fascination in the Renaissance. He wrote for actors who would present his characters with intense human emotion with intensity and skillful, eloquent diction and delivery for live audiences.
Because Shakespeare’s plays were performed on the “wrong side of the Thames” because of Queen Elizabeth’s appeasement of the Puritans in this period, all strata of society were represented in Shakespearean plays, as they related to and appealed to all classes of people who attended them. Later the Puritans would close down all the theaters, “throwing out the baby with the bath water,” but after their brief rule under Oliver Cromwell and the restoration of the “merry monarch” Charles I, the king’s sanctioned plays and performances were only for aristocrats and written by “gentleman” playwrights who primarily produced plays as contests of their provocative with salacious references to their irreverent, immoral escapades with their mistresses. Unfortunately, the Puritans in their overreactions had created a vacuum that was later filled with far worse content than what they had swept out.
Shakespeare’s tragedies, and the tragedy genre in general, warned of the dangers of human overreactions (in King Lear the king desires the devotion of his daughters but is blind and hurtful to the one who loves him most). Tragic flaws were an excess, as in Greek plays, of what could be a good thing (ambition in excess becomes murder in Macbeth). In Shakespeare’s work the great artistry of the Renaissance worked together with the great universal moral and spiritual ideas of the Reformation. Shakespeare brought to great heights of expressions some of the best of both the Renaissance and Reformation. His work has continued to set a high bar for dramatic artistic expression, especially in British dramatic writing and performing but thankfully as well for all the world.
As great art was enjoyed during Shakespeare’s day as a result of both Renaissance artistry and Reformation ideas, today we are seeing another kind of Renaissance of artistry and Reformation of content working together in public expression in modern film. In the public square where cinematography is heightened by modern technologies in the hands of cinematographic artists and where content is deepened with redemptive, universal, moral and spiritual content by skillful, faith-based writers we are seeing “iron sharpens iron.”
George Santayana wisely said, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” We are wise if we reflect on lessons from history so that we might not repeat modern versions of hard-learned historic lessons. We can gain significant insights if we ponder on the overreactions of the Puritans, who despite their basic good morals and spiritual insight created a dangerous vacuum. We can also gain important insights from the Restoration when aristocratic leaders in their great leisure with their inherited wealth and positions entertained themselves with salacious, corrupt, promiscuity as well demonstrated social insensitivity, lack of concern, and dearth of responsibility that led to the bloody revolutions of the next period.
Today we are experiencing a reformation of content in writing for many redemptive movies that are coupled with a renaissance of artistry with the best writers, directors, and actors. In the present darkness of our modern world we are experiencing the worst of times and the best of times. We can celebrate and enjoy some of the best today in what we have been seeing in ongoing modern films and movies in the developing Renaissance of artistry and Reformation of content that continue to bring great heights of artistic expression and great depth of thoughts, ideas, and ideals in the public square.