Jon Ferreira’s Answer to the Quroa Question: “I believe that Mozart gave humanity infinitely more than Shakespeare. Is Shakespeare’s fame an accurate reflection of his merits? He has many more Google results.”
Shakespeare & Language
I think that most of the other people who responded to this question did a good job demonstrating just how much Shakespeare has contributed to our society — primarily in the way of vocabulary and language. Shakespeare’s timing contributed a great deal to his legend, due to the fact that he was writing at a liminal period in the history of the English language, specifically in the malleable and fluid early years of Modern English. His invention of words, coining of phrases we still use today, clever use of dialogue and soliloquoy, extensive literary and Biblical allusions, masterful use of meter and verse, and brilliant employment of figurative language and metaphor, are just a few of the many ways Shakespeare innovated the English language, and passed down a legacy we have inherited and continue to use today. There can be no doubt that no other writer has shaped language as impactfully as William Shakespeare. His works have also inspired countless writers since. We still use his language and expressions today.
The Threads of Genius: Mozart vs. Shakespeare
As great as Mozart was, his genius is understandably more limited and less ubiquitous than Shakespeare. You could say that Mozart changed music, and influenced every composer after him, but finding the traces of Mozart in all the various genres of music today is more challenging, and certainly his influence on classical, baroque, etc. is easier to chart a trajectory. Finding remnants of Mozart in rap, for instance, might be a little harder to do. Mozart was a necessary stepping stone, which fundamentally changed music and furthered the art form, but it has splintered and evolved and changed so dramatically in the years since. He was unquestionably a musical genius, and unparalleled in the field, but his influence is necessarily less impactful and felt in our everyday lives, as Shakespeare’s demonstrably is. For example, Shakespeare phrases and words are still uttered by humans every day all across the world. The impact he had on language is unmistakable, and far easier to see the legacy. If anything, Shakespeare doesn’t get enough credit for all that he did. He truly does deserve the high praise and adoration he gets. Mozart may be unparalleled in music, but even though music is important to a lot of people today, we don’t need it to live and communicate. Mozart touched the arts, but Shakespeare has cast his shadow everywhere — through our language, science, art, psychology, and much more. His fingerprints are EVERYWHERE!
Literature Before Shakespeare
The Renaissance was a time when human enlightenment reached new heights not seen since the classical Greeks and Romans. In literature, England had seen Geoffrey Chaucer — often considered the father of English literature, and he had gone far to give voice to his characters and create colorful archetypal roles. The major works of the time are Edmund Spenser’s ‘Faerie Queene’ and Philip Sidney’s ‘Astrophil’. The real Renaissance was born in Italy though, and grew out of the productive and verdant period of the late Middle Ages. Before Shakespeare, Italy had its own literary genius in Dante Alighieri, author of the masterpiece, The Divine Comedy (1308-1320). In the late Middle Ages, the overwhelming majority of poetry was written in Latin, and therefore accessible only to affluent and educated audiences. However, Dante defended using the vernacular, and he himself would even write in the Tuscan dialect for works such as The New Life (1295) and the aforementioned Divine Comedy; this choice, although highly unorthodox, set a hugely important precedent that later Italian writers such as Petrarch and Boccaccio would follow. As a result, Dante played an instrumental role in establishing the national language of Italy. Dante’s significance also extends past his home country; his depictions of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven have provided inspiration for a large body of Western art, and are cited as an influence on the works of John Milton, Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, and Lord Alfred Tennyson, among many others. In addition, the first use of the interlocking three-line rhyme scheme, or the terza rima, is attributed to him. So Shakespeare was not the first person to revolutionize his country’s language and innovate freely, but he was unique in how he portrayed his characters. His characters were unusually human and frail, and preternaturally self-introspective. We take it for granted today, but many scholars argue that Shakespeare didn’t just capture the human condition better than any other writer, but that he actually shaped and crafted it. What we take for granted today, might actually have been the Bard’s invention.
Style & Substance: Writing a Character From the Inside Out
Although many people new or unfamiliar with Shakespeare might think his language fancy and unapproachable today, for its time, it was actually quite accessible. It was still elegant, lyrical, and ornate, but it was also muscular and digestible. Before Shakespeare, literature was very florid and characters were written from the outside. Often the poetry or the use of the third person made characters distant and stylized. They spoke very self-consciously, and it often came across as impersonal and obtuse. In the ancient Greek and Roman plays, the characters were much more expressive and emotive, but they were often tied to their own hubris and the will of the gods, that their introspection was minimal as well. Chaucer’s characters were colorful and well sketched, but they were never like real people that you could touch or feel. Their thoughts were prosaic, and did not reach to great depths.
Shakespeare changed all that.
How Shakespeare Shaped Our Psyche & Conscience
Shakespeare changed and shaped the modern psyche more than any other writer in history. His characters spoke eloquently, but also naturally. They asked questions all of us human beings ask, and contemplate mysteries and life’s riddles much in the same way we do. Shakespeare created introspective characters that contemplated their place in the universe, and struggled with their very existence. They were still animals, as we still are today, and caught up in carnal and primitive games of ambition, jealousy, anger, lust, love, etc. but also governed by insightful and rational brains, capable of great honor or deplorable acts of carnage and sin. The Renaissance was an age still ruled by the all powerful Church, superstitions about nature and necromancy, vested in the concept of fate and fortune, and wedded to unenlightened views of medicine, particularly the concept of the Humorism, a system of medicine detailing the makeup and workings of the human body, positing that an excess or deficiency of any of four distinct bodily fluids in a person—known as humors or humours—directly influences their temperament and health. The four humors of Hippocratic medicine are black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood, and each corresponds to one of the traditional four temperaments. Conversely, as these rather primitive superstition, witchcraft and devout Christian belief intermingled, there was also the emergence of a new and rational thought. It was not quite the Age of Enlightenment yet, but humanity was beginning to reason more, and science was beginning to shape human behavior. Shakespeare captured all of this.
Shakespeare characters were not only one dimensional characters on a page or pretty poetry to read, but were three dimensional, and asked hard questions of themselves and each other. They contemplated their place in the universe, and were wracked with guilt and shame, as they were forced to see themselves as they truly were, and forced to face the consequences of their actions. The characters were all deeply virtuous and noble in their own small ways (even the “bad guys”) and they were all deeply flawed and petty in other ways (even the “good guys”). Perhaps for the first time in history, Shakespeare had created flawed and inconsistent characters who were capable of good and bad deeds, and who resembled us like never before.
Shakespeare’s characters were all capable of great insights and triumphs, no matter what their station in life. Often the lower class servants were the most wise and empathetic. Kings were allowed to fall, and peasants to rise. Shakespeare was concerned with the human condition, and was truly egalitarian in how he handed out brains, compassion, mercy, empathy, nobility, etc. The good and the bad, the smart and the dumb, the lazy and the ambitious, the comic and the tragic, could all be found spread out throughout his casts, in the high court and low valleys. Shakespeare also employed high brow humor and low brow humor to diversify his cast, and to appeal to a wide audience. That is why Shakespeare was unquestionably the most popular playwright not only today, but in his day….he was accessible to everyone. Shakespeare’s demographic was the breadth of humanity.
There’s a reason why Freud was inspired by Shakespeare to use themes and tropes as the basis for some of his psychoanalytical research. Shakespeare’s plays explore the full range of human emotion and practically every philosophical and Epistemological argument and question a human could ask in a lifetime. Nobody does it better than Shakespeare, and many scholars believe that he asked questions and raised points in ways never explored before. He gave his characters a voice, and subsequently, gave us a voice too. Hamlet became not only every troubled youth and goth/ intellectual kid out there, but a young man grieving a father, a confused boyfriend manipulating his girlfriend, a son angry and hurt by a thoughtless mother, a loyal friend to one and a deadly viper to others. Hamlet was us, and despite all his flaws, we cannot help but love him, and claim him as our own. Even his “evil” characters like Macbeth, Richard III, and Iago are infinitely charming and funny, and can’t help but ensnare us in their traps. Shakespeare wrote human beings, with all their flaws and foibles, strengths and triumphs, highs and lows, humor and stoicism, and every other trait that makes a man.
Shakespeare is more than deserving of his reputation. Not only did he practically invent and innovate a good portion of our language, he defined what it was to be human, and gave voice to our questions, thoughts, and emotions in a way that had never been done before. He helped shape our modern psyche.
Answer by Jon Ferreira:
Um…I think it’s important to remember that we didn’t ‘borrow’ our language from the English. The English brought their language with them from their home country. We were English!!! It’s not borrowing when it’s your own language. We were a British colony, and therefore, spoke English. Presumably British English at first. Our unique dialect developed over time, and obviously varied from region to region.
Would you ask the same thing of all your former and current British colonies? How about Australia, New Zealand, Jamaica, British West Indies, and numerous other British colonies and protectorates? Should America be any more ashamed than these vibrant countries? The consequences of being the largest imperial empire since the Roman Empire is that you spread your seed far and afield. The fact that Americans speak English says more about England’s cultural and territorial promiscuity than it does about our perceived shame or fault.
Despite the largess of the British Empire, America has surpassed it in influence, and has had an unmistakably cataclysmic impact on the world, We have exported our technology, art and media, business, democracy, pollution, and general way of life — for good or for bad. As a result, we have arguably been more responsible for sharing and disseminating — if not strong-arming — the spread of English throughout the world. For all intents and purposes, English has become the ipso facto lingua franca of the world. At the risk of sounding nationalistic, much of the credit for the spread of English can be attributed to the globalization — or Americanization — of the planet.
Having said all that, I love England, and am a degreed scholar in Shakespeare, and a history of the English language. George Bernard Shaw once sardonically quipped, ‘The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language.’ Perhaps the British know how to use it more effectively than us Yanks, but we have robustly made it our own, and they should be regarded as fond relatives, rather than bitter and resentful enemies. The beauty of language is that it is fluid and adaptable, and always finds clever ways to suit the culture who uses it. Perhaps the Aussies have bastardized and desecrated the English language of their mother country as well, but it’s hard to argue with the fact that they have shaped it to fit their unique and rugged personality. The language is subsequently bold, robust, and above all, colorful. Perfectly suited for their country. Shakespeare himself was absolutely irreverent with English, and audaciously invented words, reconfigured vocabulary, spun new phrases, and treated the language as if it was his own, to use and abuse at will. We should all be so impudent! Like any language, English is not precious, and if it’s worth speaking, it’s worth changing and adapting.
Language is the currency of thought, and is not the possession of one sole country. It is a living, breathing thing, and it’s best to grit your teeth, and hold on for dear life. No, Americans should not be ashamed of using a language that originated somewhere else. English itself originated somewhere else. English is a West Germanic language that was brought to Britain by Germanic invaders or settlers from what is now called north west Germany and the Netherlands. A large portion of the modern English vocabulary came from the Anglo-Norman languages, as a result of the Anglo-Saxon and Norman conquests later in its history. Intermingled with this is the heavy influence of the language of Rome, following the various Roman conquests of Britain. Increased literacy and travel facilitated the adoption of many foreign words, especially borrowings from Latin and Greek since the Renaissance, and during the transition into what we call ‘Modern English.’ In the modern era, English has frequently made use of loanwords originating from other languages. English, perhaps more than any other language, is adaptive, and has grown out of ‘borrowing’ from other cultures. At its heart, our language is a postmodernist pastiche of the world. No shame here.