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).
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.