Why Shakespeare Remains Relevant Today (Classic Remarks)

Classic Remarks


Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.


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What relevance does Shakespeare have today?

Star Divider

When I consider the sheer range of Shakespeare’s plays, the question for me becomes, “How could Shakespeare not continue to have relevance today?” His works deal with everything from relatable emotions such as unrequited love, social rejection, grief for the loss of a loved one, and the thrill of young love to deep questions about the nature of power, authority, and government. His plays contain meditations on topics such as gender and sexuality, and marriage and fidelity. They engage with religion, prejudice, politics, art, and history. Readers and playgoers looking for something in Shakespeare will very likely find it. And all these things continue to interest and influence people today.

Perhaps what continues to make Shakespeare extremely relevant, however, is precisely what kept him relevant in his own day. In his work A Year in the Life of Shakespeare, James Shapiro notes that Shakespeare’s plays tend to be extremely ambiguous. Interpretations of his works as both pro-government and anti-government both work. Interpretations of Shakespeare as Catholic, Protestant, and atheist all work. No matter what side of an argument one is on, one is likely to find evidence for that stance in the plays. Shapiro suggests that this helped Shakespeare navigate an extremely fraught political and historical moment because it meant he both avoided alienating playgoers with opposing views and because he avoided offending the government, who controlled and reacted to what was shown on stage. However, this extreme ambiguity is also what makes Shakespeare so topical today.

Other writers sometimes show their age by espousing views that modern audiences no longer agree with or accept. However, because Shakespeare never shows his hand, it is not entirely possible to label him as outdated. In his plays where the women cross dress and homoerotic relationships are hinted at, but the women ultimately reveal their identities as women, is Shakespeare endorsing same-sex love or not? In plays where kings are said to be the anointed ones of God, but are shown to be wicked, is Shakespeare endorsing monarchy or not? In plays where Shakespeare seems sympathetic to outsiders, but never fully brings them into the fold of society, is Shakespeare being progressive–or not? Shakespeare always walks a tight line, where audiences could convincingly argue either side, meaning that people from his own day to our own have continued to refer to him as an authority for their political stances.

James Shapiro’s book Shakespeare in a Divided America chronicles some of the fascinating ways in which artists and politicians have used Shakespeare throughout the years to further their own political agendas, to respond their historical moment, or to try to make sense of their culture. Through a few case studies, he reveals how Shakespeare has revealed everything from Americans’ discomfort with race to their views on matrimony to their understanding of government and authority figures. His book ends with an exploration of the infamous 2017 production of Julius Caesar by Shakespeare in the Park, which depicted a Trump-like Julius Caesar. Audiences were divided over the play was endorsing assassination or condemning it–an ambiguity the play also had when it was first staged in 1599. The outcry over the production illustrates just how much Shakespeare continues to speak to us, because the topics he deals with are ones that continue to engage and trouble us today. In the words of Ben Jonson, Shakespeare was “not of an age, but for all time.”

6 thoughts on “Why Shakespeare Remains Relevant Today (Classic Remarks)

  1. jiyoon @ insomniac reviews says:

    great post!! honestly, i think the continued mainstream interest in shakespeare retellings/adaptations (THESE VIOLENT DELIGHTS by chloe gong is all anyone’s been talking about, for example) demonstrates his works are still relevant and entertaining — there’s a shakespeare for everyone!


  2. Linda I PagesandPapers says:

    I think you said everything there is to say about this topic! I especially like that you shed light on his ambiguity. The way these plays have been interpreted over the years reveals as much about the respective society (its values, attitudes, etc.) as it does about Shakespeare.


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