Does Shakespeare time travel or is the modern society returning favours?

William Shakespeare, the Bard of the 16th century England, marks his presence across time and space. Through a close reading of selected renowned dramatic works Shakespeare; Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth, this essay will examine the socio-political aspects of the period the plays were initially written and their relevance to the modern times to analyze the statement that Shakespeare “is not of an age but of all times”.

Hamlet, Shakespeare’s longest drama that presents the tragic tale of Prince of Denmark, elucidates Renaissance values parallel to the theme of death, madness, and action versus inaction. The concept of honour that encompasses the internal conscience of the Elizabethan society is well documented in Hamlet. Honour, within both the drama and the society, directed men to balance obedience to the State with adherence to the Christian faith. Thus it is this attempt to please the State and God and to remain honourable that leads to Hamlet’s quandary, his indecisiveness and ultimately to his tragic death.

While the audience is left with the doubt whether Hamlet’s facade of insanity is an act to avenge his father for the reward of a kingdom, Shakespeare explores the idea of king’s authority and power struggle. “The body is with the king, but the king is not with the body. The king is a thing” (Hamlet, 4.2. 25-27). As Hamlet asserts, the honour and respect Claudius has gained are not assimilated through his personality but a consequence of the crown he beholds. One could perceive that Shakespeare attempts to exhibit how Queen Elizabeth I had a title whereas the patriarchy was the socially accepted ruling system; she was governing a country that had preconceived social values and norms.

Similarly, in Romeo and Juliet, there is a strong connotation of the societal values. Historian Lawrence Stone stated that “to an Elizabethan audience the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, lay not so much in their ill-starred romance, as in the way they brought destruction upon themselves by violating the norms of the society” (Stone, 87).  Romeo and Juliet break many of the conventions including a secret wedding that was not formally announced by the church, going against their parents and as a consequence their lives end on a tragic note.

Suicide in Catholicism is believed to be a sin since it is against the will of God, where man takes control of his own life. In Act V Scene I of Hamlet, the iconic graveyard scene demarks that Ophelia who is assumed to have committed suicide is given a proper burial because of her social status. In the same note, there is an implication that Romeo and Juliet’s relationship, including their deaths, have entirely resulted in trespassing the social norms and religious values.

Macbeth, the shortest tragedy written by Shakespeare enumerates the tale of Macbeth who similar to Machiavelli’s Prince seeks power yet turns into a regicide tyranny. Shakespeare’s subversive support to King James I who reigned England after Queen Elizabeth I can be observed when considering the historical events and their relativity to the drama. The Gunpowder Plot of 1605, a rebel against King James I is reflected in Macbeth’s attempted revolt, treason, and plotting against the king which eventually resulted in his downfall. King James was commonly believed to be descended from Banquo the Thane of Lochquhaber, as the counterpart of Shakespeare’s Banquo, the friend of Macbeth. Thereupon when the witches prophesied “Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none” (Macbeth, 1.3. 68-69), it nuances that this reference to future kings of Banquo ancestry includes King James I.

King James I was a scholar of witches and witchcraft and he authored the book called Daemonologie (1597). Therefore to a larger extent, the inclusion of witches in the play Macbeth could have been an outcome of the king’s influence. Another significant facet to the element of women and their political involvement or their power that guides men in the drama, is the relationship of King James I and his mother Mary, Queen of Scots and his predecessor, Queen Elizabeth I. As Marjorie Garber states in her book Shakespeare After All, the excruciating presence of King James “whose image is everywhere in Macbeth, lie the shadows of these strong female figures, with their inescapable aura and their evident power over his life, his fate, and his future” (Garber).

Ben Jonson’s elegy, To the Memory of My Beloved, The Author, Master, William Shakespeare, and What he Hath Left includes the statement that Shakespeare “was not of an age, but for all time”. Perceptually and conceptually Shakespeare and his dramatic works are being celebrated, performed and studied by the modern reader, and therefore Ben Jonson’s prophecy stands true. However, the doubt arises whether Shakespeare and his works prevail because of their artistic authenticity or because of their subtle connections with the modern society, the cultural application of Shakespeare to different contexts, and colonization hailing and promoting Shakespeare as the sage of his time and age.

Shakespeare’s fame reached beyond the realms of England since the British Empire began the expeditions to colonize and expand power. The colonized were taught Shakespeare as a part of their school curriculum and even when the colonialism ended, among other western norms, Shakespeare and English language stayed in these countries. Thus, a reason for Shakespeare’s fame is a combination of his presentation of human nature ebbed with universality and the time period he produced his works.

In modern society, the characters we find in Shakespearean dramas have become cultural types. In other words, it is as if these characters have transformed and formulated into characteristics. “Romeo” is a term used to depict a romantic who would resiliently court women, and “Hamlet” as a person who is perpetually indecisive of “to be or not to be” (Hamlet, 3.1. 58). A cartoon by Peter Schrank published in the Independent in 2013 portrays the then President of United States, Barack Obama as Hamlet holding the skull of Syria with puzzlement since he was hesitant to engage his country in the Syrian conflict. Another such instance is Dave Brown’s cartoon of Cherie Claire, wife of the British prime minister, depicted as Lady Macbeth. Near her is the then Chancellor Gordon Brown who has been stabbed by Cherie Blair who is uttering the words “Out, out damn’d Scot”, a play on the lines from Macbeth “Out, out damn’d spot” (Macbeth,5.1.25). Hence in modern times, Shakespeare and his writings prevail in different domains including popular culture, politics, and economy.

“It is not very strange; for my uncle is the king of Denmark and those that would make mouths at him while my father lived give twenty, forty, fifty, a hundred ducats apiece for his picture in little. ‘Sblood, there is something in this more than natural is philosophy could find out” (Hamlet, 2.2. 341-342)

In the above excerpt, Hamlet is referring to his uncle Claudius and the ineffable conduct of people who once ridiculed Claudius.  Even in today’s society, there are the ones who would be supportive of the new ruler despite their unacceptable code of ethics and the ones who would secretly plot to overturn and seize power. During the 45th United States Presidential election there were manifestations, criticisms, and debates against the appointed President Donald Trump.  Despite the uproar against Trump that continues to exist among the US citizens, they have no option but to accept Trump and his authority as the president. Shakespeare’s portrayal of human beings with their desire to wield power exists in the contemporary society in different levels.

Hamlet’s phrase “The undiscover’d country from whose bourn / No traveller returns” (Hamlet, 3.1.79-80) has been used as the subtitle of Star Trek VI which explains the modern day normalized inclusion of quotations from a play produced nearly four hundred years ago. Further, people are aware of phrases such as “To be or not to be” used beyond its original meaning and context, reproduced, and repeated to the point where a young boy would use the same line/phrase that once connoted of death and revenge, as a term to describe his dilemma to procrastinate a simple task at school.

T.S. Eliot in his essay Hamlet and His Problems makes the bold remark that Shakespeare’s play Hamlet is an artistic failure. He denotes that Shakespeare adapted his story from Thomas Kyd and further argues that: “Shakespeare’s Hamlet, so far as it is Shakespeare’s, is a play dealing with the effect of mother’s guilt upon her son” (Eliot), even though he could not successfully impose this element in the play.

Even though T.S. Eliot articulates invectives of Hamlet, in his poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock there is a reference to the play. When Eliot wrote “I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was I meant to be” (Prufrock, 11) it is inferred that regardless of Hamlet’s lack of artistic substance, Shakespeare and his plays are universal metaphors which would be effortlessly understood by the reader.

Yet, there are irrefutable ideas scripted by Shakespeare such as human psychology and character, sexuality, government and power, youth, and gender. Moreover, Shakespeare invented words including “weird” which appears in Macbeth when describing the three sisters and the term “star-crossed lovers”. Shakespeare’s characters have become case studies in modern studies such as sociology and anthropology. Apart from Hamlet’s fascination for death, his relationship with his mother is analyzed through Freud’s theory of oedipal complex, where the root cause for his desire to seek revenge is caused by his sexual jealousy.

Romeo and Juliet is aligned with the modern society where popular music and television music is built around these characters. The ill-fate of Romeo and Juliet and the mishaps between their families can be seen even among the modern day lovers. Apart from mumbling words from Taylor Swift’s popular culture song “Love Story”, the tale of Romeo and Juliet is popular around the globe due to its universal theme of love and the portrayal of discrepancies between the youth and their parents.

Even the tales of Hamlet and Macbeth can be read parallel to the contemporary political propagandas. During the 1992 American Presidential campaigns, The American Spectator dubbed Hilary Clinton as “the Lady Macbeth of Little Rocks” a succinct implication of Clinton’s ambition to wield power. This comparison of Lady Macbeth and her failure to balance her roles as a wife and a leader is covertly susceptible to Clinton’s image. Hence, Macbeth’s misogynistic or sexist insinuations are relatable to the modern society in different levels.

In conclusion, the universal themes that are discussed in these writings play an integral role when analyzing the modern society and the prevalence of Shakespeare’s dramatic works. When Shakespearean characters are dissected through scientific domains, it further stabilizes the concurrent reference to Shakespeare and his literary works. If a timeline is set from the times the plays were initially staged to the contemporary society where these works are altered, modified or adjusted, it will unravel the socio-political aspects of the respective era. Hence, in my opinion, rather than Ben Jonson’s statement, what is more appealing to the modern society would be Marjorie Garber’s interpretation that “Shakespeare makes modern culture, and modern culture makes Shakespeare” (Garber).



Work Cited

Eliot, T. S. Selected Essays. 1st ed. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1964. Print.

Eliot, T. S. The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock. 1st ed. Print.

Garber, Marjorie B. Shakespeare After All. 1st ed. New York: Anchor, 2005. Print.

Garber, Marjorie B. Shakespeare And Modern Culture. 1st ed. New York: Anchor Books,             2009. Print.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. 1st ed. London: HarperPress, 2011. Print.

Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. 1st ed. London: Harper Press, 2010. Print.

Shakespeare, William. Romeo And Juliet. 1st ed. London: Harper Press, 2011. Print.

Stone, Lawrence. The Family, Sex And Marriage In England 1500-1800. 1st ed. London:             Penguin, 1990. Print.


Portrait of Stephen Dedalus by an artist : a review


            A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is viewed traditionally more or less, if not entirely, as James Joyce’s autobiographical novel. The novel is woven around Stephen Dedalus whose life we follow from childhood and adolescence up to the realization of his artistic calling, and a little beyond. While researching on the book itself, I deemed the fact that there are mainly two types of readers of the novel; some who see the novel as a typical Joyce’s criticism of the religious influence on Stephen’s life, and the others who would slam the book once they read the word “moo-cow” and refuse to analyze Joyce’s power in language articulation. Yet in this story where the autobiographical and fiction elements are blended, one of the crucial aspects that I perceived to be intriguing was the narrative style.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man draws the most convincing picture of an Irish Catholic upbringing. The narrator and the narrative style possess an enormous influence over how the events and the characters are presented and thereupon designate the propaganda of the story as a whole. Joyce breaks away from one scene to another without a hint of the change in time or place. The narrative voice in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is omniscient but we are exposed to Stephen’s thoughts and not of any other character and the narrator aims to render realistically the struggle and development of the protagonist. The spectacular feature in the narration is the shift in the fifth chapter where we are exposed to Stephen, by Stephen.

“Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow… (Chapter 1,pg 3) From the beginning of chapter one, James Joyce opens a window to reach the interior of Stephen’s thoughts and follow his intellectual development.  In the early years of Stephen’s life, he is silent or would not speak even when he wants to disagree. Stephen is presented as an easy target of the bullies due to his appearance, mild and sensitive nature and small size. Joyce occupies stream of consciousness to map the formidable character traits of Stephen. One fascinating element to his narrative style is his use of language. The reader sees the world through the eyes of Stephen and the language itself calibrates parallel to the protagonist. For instance, when his classmate Wells probes whether he kisses his mother before he goes to sleep, Stephen is confused since the boys do not reveal the answer they expect. Stephen tries to laugh along as a gesture of pretending to belong to the rest. These simple details are ample to explain the narrative style and how prevalently it has been occupied by Joyce.

When Stephen reaches the adolescent stage, his childhood becomes a faint memory. Thus, the narration takes up from the child-like innocence to a teenager who is in need of adventures. When he goes to Cork with his father, he learns the stories of his father’s time at Queen’s college. When he sees the word “Fetus” carved in a desk, he travels back to the past of the college. It also implies his sexual preoccupation as we are then revealed of the sexual encounters of Stephen and how he gradually enters a stage of spiritual paralysis.

“He drew forth a phrase from his treasure and spoke it softly to him:

-A day of dappled seaborne clouds.

The phrase and the day and the scene harmonized in a chord. Words. Was it their colours? He allowed them to glow and fade, hue after hue: sunrise gold, the russet and green of apple orchards, azure of waves, the greyfringed fleece of clouds. Did he then love the rhythmic rise and fall of words better than their associations of legend and colour?”  (Chapter 4, pg 180)

When Steven arrives at the realization of the immorality of his actions, he seeks the salvation of religion. The novel goes on for pages with vivid yet gruesome descriptions of the sins and the consequences that follow. However, Stephen meets a girl whom he describes vivaciously with bird-like metaphors and marked as the turning point where Stephen discovers a newer outlook on his own life. This incident takes place after the above passage, where we encounter Stephen’s awakening and self-realization. The reader can observe the narrator describing the incident with much insight. For instance, the word “treasure” signifies a personal thought of Stephen and therefore the reader can observe how attached the narrator is , to the protagonist. The quotation itself “A day of dappled seaborne clouds” is actually a misquotation of a line from a Hugh Miller poem, and should read: “A day of dappled, breeze-borne clouds” (Gifford 219).The narrator does not fret to correct Stephen’s misquotation implying how objective he is even when describing a subjective situation.

“Et ignotas animum dimittit in artes – Ovid , Metemophose”

The epigraph of the novel can be translated as, “And he applies his mind to obscure arts”. The “he” is Daedalus, a craftsman from the Greek mythology. He is the father of Icarus who is known for the tragedy of flying too close to the sun with his wax wings. It is not by coincidence that Joyce names his protagonist “Dedalus”. The name Daedalus in Greek means “The cunning artificer”. Daedalus, the ideal artist is referred by Stephen at the end of the book as “Old father old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead”. The final first person narration coincides with Stephen pursuing his dream, like Icarus, with the wings of art.

The narrative style along with the stream of consciousness, Joyce’s absence of inverted commas, deliberate time-lapses that lead to the revelation of the Stephen’s journey as an artist.


Work Cited

Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Ed. Seamus Deane. London: Penguin Classics, 2000. Print.

Gifford, Don. Joyce Annotated. Berkely: U of California P, 1982. Print.

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