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:
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.