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:
Hamlet was a student at Wittenberg, and is home on leave for the funeral of his father and subsequent marriage of his mother and uncle. We get the impression that Hamlet is presumably, a very strong student, a promising mind. and a very capable scholar with a bright future ahead of him.
We can deduce that Hamlet is intelligent based on his level of subterfuge and ability to manipulate those around him. As soon as he meets with the ghost and learns of his uncle’s crime, Hamlet sets about on a path to discover the truth, and if need be, act swiftly and with justice. His clever plan for eliciting the truth is to ‘put on an antic disposition’ by which he will act ‘strange or odd’ and play at being mad. In the guise of madness, he may have more latitude to test theories and push people, since they will be less likely to act against him, and instead give him a wide berth. A valid question audiences must ask themselves is if Hamlet is simply just acting mad, or whether he really is. If he’s only acting, he is very convincing. It’s likely a mixture of both.
In his mad state, Hamlet gets to work pestering, assaulting, and provoking various people around him in an effort to get at the truth. Hamlet sets various traps for Polonius–verbally outwitting the meddlesome and obsequious lapdog. Hamlet purposely ensnares Ophelia in mind games meant to confuse and disorient her –not likely out of outright cruelty, but for the sake of his uncle and Polonius, who are eavesdropping nearby. Hamlet wants the court to know how mad he really is, and especially his uncle. He is particularly cruel and rough with Ophelia. When his school friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive at the request of the king, they are greeted with derision and mockery by Hamlet. Ultimately, their complicity and plotting with Claudius to spy on Hamlet end up killing them, as Hamlet turns the tables on their betrayal. Hamlet assaults his mother in her bed chambers and continues his charade of an antic disposition, but he is also clearly in pain as he confronts her incestuous marriage, and condemns her betrayal of his father and lecherous union with his uncle. Hamlet is purposefully rough with her, leading Polonius to betray himself behind an arras, and inviting his own death at the hands of Hamlet (who thinks it’s Claudius hiding). Throughout the play, Hamlet uses deception to trick the people around him into working for him and giving him clues to unravel his mystery. This clever maneuvering is part of what make Hamlet intelligent.
The greatest indicator that Hamlet is in fact, supremely intelligent — if not a genius — is the complexity and depth of his thoughts. During the encounters above, Hamlet displayed a clever wit and ability to make puns, use figurative language, and construct riddles to further confuse the other person. His madness disorients them, and his arguments alarm them. In his conversation with Claudius and R& G he used calm and rational language, while tricking them into his linguistic traps and forcing them to betray more than they intended. Conversely, in his arguments with Gertrude and Ophelia, Hamlet abandons reason for pure unbridled emotion. He pleads, he yells, he chides, he scorns, he bargains, he condemns, and he becomes cruel and physical. Earlier when Hamlet commented on his mother’s hasty marriage, he said: ‘Frailty, thy name is woman!’ It’s clear to see from this sentiment, combined with the cruel use of rough and physical violence and his willingness to use caustic verbal abuse, that Hamlet has deep-seated anger and aggression towards women, and a very low opinion of them.
As clever as his dialogue can be, it is in his speeches (monologues and soliloquies) where Hamlet allows us to glimpse his active mind, the profundity of his thoughts, and the haunting poetry of his soul.
The first examples of his probing mind comes in the ‘To be, or not to be…’ speech, when towards the end Hamlet wonders:
“For who would bear the Whips and Scorns of time,
The Oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s Contumely,
The pangs of despised Love, the Law’s delay,
The insolence of Office, and the Spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his Quietus make
With a bare Bodkin?
‘ Who would these Fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered Country, from whose bourn
No Traveller returns, Puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of.
Thus Conscience does make Cowards of us all,”
In his clever linguistic style, Hamlet asks rhetorical questions, that he will then answer. He is engaging in a Socratic dialogue and using a dialectic to have a conversation with himself, and present both sides of an argument. This compare and contrast (this vs that) device is one employed throughout Hamlet and all of Shakespeare. He asks who would choose to suffer in a life of misery when he can put an end to things by taking his own life. He then answers why not, speaking of a fear of not knowing what’s after death. He make an analogy to a traveller traveling abroad to an unexplored and undiscovered country, which no one has ever returned. The very though cripples the will to kill oneself, and convinces that person to endure whatever ills they know about, rather than travel somewhere that could be worse. Artfully, Hamlet ends with the famous line: ‘Thus Conscience does make Cowards of us all.’ This means that our gut feeling and inner voice will ask questions regarding the safety and wisdom of jumping into something, which inevitably only serves to frighten us into resistance. This is the most famous speech in any play, and may be the most recognizable piece of text in the English language. It is lyrical and captures the sensitive heart of the young prince, while also speaking in expressive metaphor and simile. He contemplates profound questions of human existance and life after death. His sentiment is something we’ve all undoubtedly thought about at one time. His humanity is self-evident.
Other brief examples of shrewd insight include the line, ‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Hamlet shows maturity and his characteristic rational mind to reason that events, people, objects, etc. have no inherent value — they are neither good nor bad — and it’s all how you look at it. Context therefore plays a vital role in assigning worth and value judgments. The glass is both half full and half empty, depending on how we look at it.
Hamlet’s Quiet Acceptance
In a moment of transcendence, Hamlet reasons, “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” suggesting that man’s life on Earth and his relation to the universe and understanding of Heaven are concepts too large and unfathomable for a mere mortal to comprehend. Hamlet seems to take comfort in surrendering to God and nature to determine whatever path he must take and whatever fate befalls him. At this late point in the play, Hamlet has accepted what he must do, and has adopted a sort of mystical Zen attitude above his uncertain future.
Another example of Hamlet’s progressive and enlightened calming and accepting demeanor can be seen in the following speech:
“We defy augury. There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is ’t to leave betimes? Let be.”
Hamlet makes a profound and mature observation that God determines all things, even the death of a small sparrow. He continues, saying that everything will work out as it is destined. If something is supposed to happen now, it will. If it’s supposed to happen later, it won’t happen now. What’s important is to be prepared. Since nobody knows anything about what he leaves behind, then what does it mean to leave early? Let it be. The speech is an elegant commitment to the Elizabethan idea of fate and everyone’s proximity to fortune. Hamlet upholds the idea that it is silly and unproductive to worry about fate, since it going to play out as it must. Perhaps the most profound sentiment in this short speech comes at the end, when Hamlet cleverly points out that nobody knows what happens after they die, so if they die early, how can they miss what they don’t know is going to happen. It’s clever rhetorical ideas like this that demonstrate Hamlet’s dry wit, clever debating skills, fierce intellect, and ability to turn a phrase and use language on many different levels.
Goodnight Sweet Prince
One of the reasons the character of Hamlet has been so enduring and resilient through the ages is the dialectical and contradictory nature of his personality. Hamlet is at once both noble and brave and depraved and cowardly. Perhaps we can all see ourselves in Hamlet’s debilitating funk and Sisyphean procrastinating time loop, where he is struck dumb in his tracks, paralyzed with fear and unable to move forward or step back. Although he wants to believe in the ghost is his dad, he has a rational mind, and he simply doesn’t know if he can trust his senses. He is skeptical, and for good reason. The ghost is asking him to commit the heinous crime of regicide by avenging his father’s death. If he is wrong, he will have made a grievous error, and will pay with his life. Hamlet is about as indecisive as they come. This is a very good indicator of a large brain capacity. Hamlet is a cool and calculating rational mind, but since arriving from Wittenberg, he has been subjected to a wealth of emotions: grief, anger, betrayal, indecision, doubt, incredulity, rage, and many more. He is now ruled by mercurial forces, and he is unbalanced. His rational mind is battling his unbalanced emotions. On top of that, it is pretty clear he is suffering from at least a mild mental illness.
Hamlet is one of the most compelling characters because he is us. Many scholars consider the influence of Hamlet’s character on mankind as being a major contributor in shaping the modern human psyche, with his sophisticated inner life, thorough introspection, ego, humility, emotional regulation, and other factors that make us uniquely human. Hamlet asked questions we’ve likely asked at one point in our lives. He is faced with a terrible choice, and we must watch it rip him apart inside. He is a good young man, and shouldn’t have been put into this situation, but the Elizabethans loved their revenge tragedies, and Hamlet had a duty to avenge his father’s death. That’s an unbearable thing to ask a young sensitive intellectual student, who otherwise wouldn’t hurt a fly.
Like Sherlock Holmes, Hamlet is one of the most probing, inquisitive, sensitive, profound, cerebral, meticulous, enigmatic, and clever minds in all of Western literature. His enduring legacy is that he struggles so hard to be a good man and do the right thing, but we must helplessly watch as he completely unravels and plays at an even deadlier game. Hamlet makes numerous mistakes throughout the play, and at points, his hysterically emotional and erratic behavior leads directly to tragedy and bloodshed –he singlehandedly kills an entire family — Polonius, Ophelia (Hamlet was a major contributing factor, along with her father’s death), and her brother Laertes. Hamlet’s cruel and abusive treatment of Ophelia and Gertrude is hard to watch, and hard to reconcile with the sweet and sensitive young scholar we know is hurting profoundly inside. And yet, Hamlet is our everyman (albeit royal, smarter, and wealthier than most of us!). We are allowed to empathize with his grief and anger at his uncle, who brought his world down upon him. He’s a kid who misses his dad, and is estranged from a mother who dishonored the memory of his father by committing a revolting act of impropriety, and crawling into the bed of her brother in law. It might as well be incest, as far as Hamlet is concerned. Part of the strength of the play is that we see all of Hamlet’s objectionable behavior described above, but have to accept them as the inevitable flaws of a deeply troubled young man. We know too much of the rational thinker and sensitive man to disown our protagonist now. By the end of the play, we are vindicated, when we see a Hamlet who has passed through the fire and come out the other side, brave, resolute, and possessing a steady calmness and quiet acceptance. He knows what he must do, and puts his faith in God and Providence to deliver him to his fate–a destiny he has no control over anyway. With steely resolve, we witness the cerebral schoolboy transform into an elegant instrument of revenge, and though mortally injured, he manages to fatally wound Laertes and run his uncle through with his sword. He must also witness his mother die in the fray, In an instant, two entire families are extinguished, and Fortinbras is left picking up the pieces. As Hamlet lay dying he utters his final words: ‘The rest is silence.’ Appropriate last words for a character who has the most lines of any character in the canon with 1495. He practically speaks for the entire span of the show. He’s finally achieved his purpose, answered his questions, and accepts the inevitable silence of his own death. After Hamlet passes, Horatio sends him off with: ‘Now cracks a noble heart.—Good night, sweet prince, And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!—’ Hamlet’s flight towards Heaven gently parallels the fall of the sparrow — both agents of Providence.Hamlet is the sparrow, of course, and where he once fell, now he is lifted to his salvation.
Answer by Jon Ferreira:
We all know that Shakespeare had a vivid imagination, and much of the details of royal intrigue undoubtedly sprung from his genius mind. Furthermore, Shakespeare was evidently a voracious reader, and more importantly, he was a purposeful reader. He mined historical accounts, literature, and plays for plot lines and the details and protocol of court etiquette. With a few exceptions, Shakespeare did not invent the plots of his plays. Sometimes he used old stories (Hamlet, Pericles). Sometimes he worked from the stories of near-contemporary Italian writers, such as Boccaccio—using both popular stories (Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing) and lesser-known ones (Othello). He used the popular prose fictions of his peers in As You Like It and The Winter’s Tale. In writing his historical plays, he drew largely from Sir Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans for the Roman plays and the chronicles of Edward Hall and Holinshed for the plays based upon English history. Shakespeare was unscrupulous when it came to stealing from his predecessors and contemporaries, and he often took the lead from them.
Finally, Shakespeare was familiar with the Royal Court because he had been there, on several occasions. And sometimes, the court came to him. Throughout his life, Shakespeare was greatly indebted to the patronage and support of royal and noble personages; his royal patrons were Queen Elizabeth and King James I, both of whom greatly loved the drama. The virgin queen used her influence in the progress of the English drama, and fostered the unmatched genius of Shakespeare. Shakespeare was supremely attracted to Elizabeth and her Court, and proved a faithful servant. He was, in addition to being a genius, an opportunist, and was unyielding in his self-promotion and solicitation of support for his theatre company.
According to historical fact, Shakespeare first performed two comedies before the Queen in December, 1594, at the Royal Palace at Greenwich. By that time, Shakespeare had only written five of the thirty-eight plays he would write in his lifetime. Over the course of his career, he would go on to perform as an actor or appear as a playwright before Queen Elizabeth, and later, James I, dozens of times. Undoubtedly, he studied the inner workings of the royal court, and incorporated it into his writing.
Shakespeare may have been a commoner, but he held a very important place in Elizabethan society. He was an actor-playwright, and part owner of the hottest theatre in town. In a time when the average distractions were bear-baiting and catching the plague, theatre was THE entertainment source for both commoners and royalty. Everyone went to see plays! Shakespeare was the hot young writer, and was in popular demand. His status skyrocketed from commoner to darling artist of the court, complete with a royal patronage. He was no ordinary commoner. He had access to the crown, and it all ended up in his plays.