As we celebrate Shakespeare’s 450th birthday, people offer many different reasons why theaters and readers all over the world still perform his plays. For the English-speaking world, of course, they have great linguistic pyrotechnics as well as importance as part of tradition. But another reason why the plays’ appeal keeps spreading is the extent to which they dramatize issues still important today.
Our world of frequent mobility and cross-cultural encounters produces conflicts that we can often see mirrored in Shakespeare’s plays. Many of Shakespeare’s characters move between inside and outside—begin with acceptance and end outside the play’s community, reverse the trajectory, or move back and forth many times. Lear is an omnipotent king at the beginning of his play, but soon he is out of that role, and soon after that he is out of a home. Malvolio begins as Olivia’s right hand man, though the rest of her court dislikes him, but after he starts to woo her she is convinced he has gone mad.
Shakespeare often shows mockery or hatred of difference, but he also shows admiration, fascination, and sympathy for it—consider Antony’s attitude to Cleopatra and Desdemona’s to Othello. The plays show vividly scenes in which one character is mocked by a group, as when the Merry Wives make fun of Falstaff; scenes where an outsider is welcomed, as Orlando is to the Forest of Arden; and scenes where one character strategizes to push another outside, as Iago does to both Cassio and Desdemona. Sometimes outsider characters are interesting because they are so threatening, like Richard III, but usually their threatening moments are juxtaposed with moments that emphasize their human needs—like Shylock, they ask, “If you prick us, do we not bleed?”
Often a play juxtaposes several different kinds of relative outsiders, as we see Shylock’s difference as a Jew in some ways contrasted and in some ways paralleled with Antonio’s temperamental and class difference and Portia’s gender difference. When such outsiders conflict with each other, the audience may divide in its sympathy, but individuals in the audience or the reading public may also change their attitudes as they see one character after another go too far. These are the sort of conflicts that promote both disagreement and engagement—from the arguments of friends after seeing a play to the ongoing conversation of literary critics to the attempts of performers, directors and filmmakers to realize their own visions. These conversations, some of which probably began after Shakespeare’s early plays in the 1590s, show no signs of stopping soon.
Image credit: King Lear, by William Shakespeare. Billy Rose Theatre Collection photograph file / Productions / King Lear, by William Shakespeare. The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts / Billy Rose Theatre Division. Digital ID: th-26711. New York Public Library