What’s So Special About Shakespeare?

“He was not of an age, but for all time!”
– Ben Jonson

It’s interesting to wonder why we’re all here discussing the death anniversary of a man who died 400 years ago, who was born more than 450 years ago and who was a playwright in London. He wasn’t by far the first playwright, nor was he the only playwright at the time, and he didn’t appear to do anything that differently than any one else at the time. But is this really the case?

Why are we still talking about Shakespeare and his plays, what makes him so fascinating to us? It is of course because his legacy of works is so incredible it’s hard not to admire the man who wrote them. The themes, the stories, the execution of these grand ideas about tragedy, love, fate, comedy, and the mystical are astonishing and timeless. You only have to see at how frequently he’s been remixed and redone in multiple forms over the centuries, across continents, everything from books to films to ballets.wpid-wp-1424525891884

He’s lasted because his words have been cemented in culture and every time you ‘break the ice’ or go on a ‘wild goose chase’ and claim ‘love is blind’ you are reminding the world of Shakespeare and keeping his legacy alive. The complexity of his characters and the creativity and drama of his plays are worth preserving and anyone who claims he’s stuffy and old just haven’t found the right way to experience his work or they just don’t realise how much of our culture revolves around Shakespeare and how he sneaks into everything we do, say, and see.

A session I went to at the Newcastle Writers’ Festival this year asked the question What Makes Shakespeare Special? The speaker broke down the numbers and tried to work out why he is so special. Looking at the number of plays written compared with his contemporaries Shakespeare contributed to and produced around 40. Is it his play count that makes him last? With others like Thomas Haywood claiming he wrote 220 plays then the answer’s no. Was it his command of the English language? At the time a farm labourer had a vocabulary of 300 words, and educated and literate person had 3-4000, Shakespeare had a vocabulary of 15000 words. As this session made mention, the Old Testament has 5600 words, and Milton has 8000.

As impressive as 15000 is, this does include each variation of word eg. cry, cries, cried. So does that count? Compared to other playwrights like Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson he seems to use more words, but he also had more plays. The argument can be made that proportionately he didn’t, if they wrote more plays they too would have more words.

Shakespeare vocabulary is average at best, so if it isn’t the words what is it? Something the speaker said that resonated with me was that it’s “what [Shakespeare] does with the words rather than any exceptional words”. Shakespeare uses familiar words but uses them to maximum effort. What had the greatest effect on a play was that these simple words contained so much meaning. An example used was in Twelfth Night: A line spoken by Sir Andrew Aguecheek is “I was adored once too.” This is a simple line but it opens up so much about Aguecheek as a character. It’s impactful, that is what makes Shakespeare special and why he’s lasted. He uses his words carefully and with intent. Even in things like his puns show that words were chosen carefully that bring out character and meaning to the greatest effect.
Shakespeare is also more varied, he wrote comedies, tragedies and histories. He covered a lot and explored so many topics and relatable themes. Even if you weren’t a Danish prince you could understand Hamlet’s struggle, and experience the drama in Taming of the Shrew. Every modern adaptation of a play shows these are lasting and still relevant issues that people face.

Shakespeare is special because of characters. This was deduced at this session and I agree. The flawed, complex characters are what make Shakespeare so endearing. He created the most unusual and most representative characters that people can relate to. His characters make grand speeches, there’s satire and chit chat, they’re frank and confessional but they can be rounded and real. There’s a great mixture. As the speaker noted, it isn’t about the high drama, it’s about ordinary interchanges.

I think it will be a long time before Shakespeare is forgotten about. I think as long as people keep reinventing his works, retelling his words, and drawing upon him for inspiration then Shakespeare will live on. He’s special in his unremarkableness in a way. He was just a playwright from Stratford and he became a superstar through history. He used his words to tell captivating plays and that’s it. Somehow in this simple act that dozens others were doing alongside him he’s become a historical figure of grand standing. It’s unexplainable and remarkable and something that may continue to mystify.

For 400 years since his death Shakespeare has continued to live on, and I have no doubt he will do so for centuries to become.

Shakespeare 400th OwlI didn’t reference anything really in this aside from that session but I’ve included a few links below, some that look at this more academically than I did, including another quick (4 minute) radio interview. They’re all interesting but I would have gone on forever trying to discuss it all and I quite liked the NWF session so it was my key focus. This is also my last Shakespeare post and the finale to my month long dedication. Thank you for going on this month long journey of Shakespeare with me. It was fun and informative for me and I hope it was for you as well. Or, if you blacklisted my blog for the past 30 days I hope you’ll come back come 1 May :D.

Links and Bits

Why do we still care about Shakespeare?

What’s so great about Shakespeare?

What makes Shakespeare so special?

To the Memory of…

“The remarkable thing about Shakespeare is that he is really very good – in spite of all the people who say he is very good.”
– Robert Graves

Ben Jonson was a close friend and fellow playwright with William Shakespeare who performed in many of his plays, and vice versa. After Shakespeare died and the First Folio was published, Jonson wrote an eighty line tribute which accompanied the 1623 edition. The poem is filled with praise and argues that, despite whatever private reservations he might have had, Jonson wanted to go on public record as one of Shakespeare’s greatest admirers. It’s a great poem and one that reminds us that in his lifetime Shakespeare had many friends and fellow actors and playwrights who knew and respected him.

To the Memory of My Beloved the Author, Mr. William Shakespeare
By Ben Jonson
To draw no envy, Shakespeare, on thy name,
Am I thus ample to thy book and fame;
While I confess thy writings to be such
As neither man nor muse can praise too much;
‘Tis true, and all men’s suffrage. But these ways
Were not the paths I meant unto thy praise;
For seeliest ignorance on these may light,
Which, when it sounds at best, but echoes right;
Or blind affection, which doth ne’er advance
The truth, but gropes, and urgeth all by chance;
Or crafty malice might pretend this praise,
And think to ruin, where it seem’d to raise.
These are, as some infamous bawd or whore
Should praise a matron; what could hurt her more?
But thou art proof against them, and indeed,
Above th‘ ill fortune of them, or the need.
I therefore will begin. Soul of the age!
The applause, delight, the wonder of our stage!
My Shakespeare, rise! I will not lodge thee by
Chaucer, or Spenser, or bid Beaumont lie
A little further, to make thee a room:
Thou art a monument without a tomb,
And art alive still while thy book doth live
And we have wits to read and praise to give.
That I not mix thee so, my brain excuses,
I mean with great, but disproportion’d Muses,
For if I thought my judgment were of years,
I should commit thee surely with thy peers,
And tell how far thou didst our Lyly outshine,
Or sporting Kyd, or Marlowe’s mighty line.
And though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek,
From thence to honour thee, I would not seek
For names; but call forth thund’ring Aeschylus,
Euripides and Sophocles to us;
Pacuvius, Accius, him of Cordova dead,
To life again, to hear thy buskin tread,
And shake a stage; or, when thy socks were on,
Leave thee alone for the comparison
Of all that insolent Greece or haughty Rome
Sent forth, or since did from their ashes come.
Tri’umph, my Britain, thou hast one to show
To whom all scenes of Europe homage owe.
He was not of an age but for all time!
And all the Muses still were in their prime,
When, like Apollo, he came forth to warm
Our ears, or like a Mercury to charm!
Nature herself was proud of his designs
And joy’d to wear the dressing of his lines,
Which were so richly spun, and woven so fit,
As, since, she will vouchsafe no other wit.
The merry Greek, tart Aristophanes,
Neat Terence, witty Plautus, now not please,
But antiquated and deserted lie,
As they were not of Nature’s family.
Yet must I not give Nature all: thy art,
My gentle Shakespeare, must enjoy a part.
For though the poet’s matter nature be,
His art doth give the fashion; and, that he
Who casts to write a living line, must sweat,
(Such as thine are) and strike the second heat
Upon the Muses’ anvil; turn the same
(And himself with it) that he thinks to frame,
Or, for the laurel, he may gain a scorn;
For a good poet’s made, as well as born;
And such wert thou. Look how the father’s face
Lives in his issue, even so the race
Of Shakespeare’s mind and manners brightly shines
In his well-turned, and true-filed lines;
In each of which he seems to shake a lance,
As brandish’d at the eyes of ignorance.
Sweet Swan of Avon! what a sight it were
To see thee in our waters yet appear,
And make those flights upon the banks of Thames,
That so did take Eliza and our James!
But stay, I see thee in the hemisphere
Advanc’d, and made a constellation there!
Shine forth, thou star of poets, and with rage
Or influence, chide or cheer the drooping stage;
Which, since thy flight from hence, hath mourn’d like night,
And despairs day, but for thy volume’s light.

Even More Shakespeare Facts!

But my God, how beautiful Shakespeare is, who else is as mysterious as he is; his language and method are like a brush trembling with excitement and ecstasy.
– Vincent van Gogh

welcome-shakespeare-quiz-and-activitiesAs my  Shakespeare Month is drawing to a close it’s time for the final installment of Shakespeare Fun Facts. All my sources are included below and there are still so many more I didn’t include! If you look hard enough there is so much to discover.

1. According to Shakespeare professor Louis Marder, “Shakespeare was so facile in employing words that he was able to use over 7,000 of them – more than occur in the whole King James Version of the Bible – only once and never again.”

2. Some scholars have maintained that Shakespeare did not write the plays attributed to him, with at least fifty writers having been suggested as the “real” author. However, the evidence for Shakespeare’s having written the plays is very strong.

3. The American President Abraham Lincoln was a great lover of Shakespeare’s plays and frequently recited from them to his friends. His assassin, John Wilkes Booth was a famous Shakespearean actor.

4. ‘William Shakespeare’ is an anagram of ‘I am a weakish speller’.

5. The first ever amateur performance of a Shakespeare play took place in 1623. A handwritten manuscript survives of an adaptation of the two parts of Henry IV, which was performed by a household in Pluckley in Kent. Sir Edward Dering, the amateur theatre enthusiast who commissioned it was the first person we know of to buy a First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays when it hit the bookstalls in 1623.

6. In Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain describes how two swindlers posing as English actors on their way down the Mississippi stage a night of Shakespeare in the court house of a one-horse town in Arkansas. When the audience drift away before the end, one of them declares: “Arkansas lunkheads couldn’t come up to Shakespeare! “

7. Shakespeare followed the Gold Rush west in the 1840s. There are stories of pioneer companies of actors playing among the ore-rich gulches, to mining camps full of desperados and sharpers of all nations.

8. Fellow playwright Ben Jonson called Shakespeare ‘Our Star of Poets’: “Take him and cut him out in little stars/And he will make the face of heaven so fine,/ That all the world will be in love with night”. And though there are satellites named after Shakespeare characters, there is no star named after Shakespeare himself.

9. The most popular name from a Shakespeare play used today is Olivia. He was also the first to use this spelling.

10. Shakespeare took phrases from other languages. For instance, ‘fat paunches make lean pates’ from Love’s Labour’s Lost was originally a Greek and Latin proverb by St Jerome.

11. The word ‘love’ appears 2,191 times in the complete works

12. Legend has it that at the tender age of eleven, William watched the pageantry associated with Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Kenilworth Castle near Stratford and later recreated this scene many times in his plays.

13. Unlike most famous artists of his time, the Bard did not die in poverty. When he died, his will contained several large holdings of land.

14. Shakespeare has been credited by the Oxford English Dictionary with introducing almost 3,000 words to the English language.


Absolute Shakespeare

No Sweat Shakespeare

The Telegraph

British Council


“Shakespeare told every kind of story – comedy, tragedy, history, melodrama, adventure, love stories and fairy tales – and each of them so well that they have become immortal. In all the world of storytelling he has become the greatest name.”
Marchette Chute

I was going to include this in the other post about adaptations but I had more to say about this series and the other post was already quite long. I couldn’t have a Shakespeare adaptation talk without including the amazing ShakespearRE-Told series.

ShakespeaRE-Told is a series that aired on BBC One in November 2005. The title is an umbrella term that covers the four TV adaptations that are remakes of Shakespeare plays. Each play is adapted by a different writer and the setting is relocated to the present day. The plays adapted were Much Ado About Nothing, Macbeth, The Taming of the Shrew, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Most of the stories stay the same but some stories do combine characters, or change a few details but these are fairly inconsequential.

I was in my first year of uni when I heard about this series. We watched Macbeth in one of my classes and it was possible the greatest thing I had seen, certainly one of my all time favourite Shakespeare adaptations. Before that I had seen a few movies that mixed up the story and a few with location changed but this was something different, it seemed so close to the original story I knew but was a world away at the same time.

There is a star-studded line up of British actors who play iconic characters like Macbeth, Duncan, Hero, Claude, Oberon, and Titania. The retellings are so incredibly clever and you can still see the strong Shakespeare story even in this modern setting.


Much Ado About Nothing

 Adapted by: David Nicholls
Directed: Brian Percival
Setting: In a local news studio
Cast: Sarah Parish, Damian Lewis, Billie Piper, Tom Ellis

Beatrice and Benedick are feuding anchors. Hero, weather girl and daughter of station manager Leonard, becomes engaged to Claude, the sports presenter. Jealous visual effects manager Don, plots to break up Hero and Claude, whilst the others attempt to get Beatrice and Benedick together.



Adapted by: Peter Moffat
Directed: Mark Brozel
Setting: In a three Michelin star restaurant
Cast: Vincent Regan, James McAvoy, Keeley Hawes, Richard Armitage

Celebrity chef Duncan Docherty owns the restaurant with Joe Macbeth as the sous chef and his wife Ella as the Maître d’. Joe and his fellow chef Billy Banquo are annoyed that Duncan takes the credit for Joe’s work and that Duncan’s son Malcolm has, in their opinion, no real flair for the business. Then they encounter three supernatural bin men who predict that Macbeth will get ownership of the restaurant, as will Billy’s children. Joe and Ella are inspired to kill Duncan, but the bin men subsequently warn that Macbeth should be wary of headwaiter Peter Macduff.


The Taming of The Shrew

Adapted by: Sally Wainwright
Directed: David Richards
Setting: In politics
Cast: Shirley Henderson, Rufus Sewell, Jaime Murray, David Mitchell

Katherine Minola is a politician who hopes to become the Leader of the Opposition. She’s told that her abrasive personality is bad PR and that it might be good for her image to get married. When penniless nobleman Petruchio shows up, interested at first in Katherine’s money, sparks fly as Katherine seems to have met her match. The relationship and battle of wills bring big surprises for both parties.


 A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Adapted by: Peter Bowker
Directed: Ed Fraiman
Setting: At Dream Park inclusive leisure facility
Cast: Bill Paterson, Imelda Staunton, Zoe Tapper, Tom Ellis, Rupert Evans

Theo and Polly visit Dream Park inclusive leisure facility to celebrate the engagement of their daughter Hermia to James. The engagement party is, much to the irritable Theo’s horror, disrupted by Hermia’s true love Xander. Despite their own disagreements, the fairy rulers of the woods around Dream Park, Titania and Oberon, have a duty to ensure a happy ending, so Oberon gets Puck — portrayed as a sort of magical wide boy — to try to sort things out with “love juice” eyedrops, while Oberon and Theo discuss their marriages.



Links and Bits

ShakespeaRE-Told Website


Celebrating Shakespeare 400

Today marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and the world is coming together to honour and celebrate that man that brought us such wonderful plays like Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet and beautiful sonnets and phrases we still use today. While I’ve been posting all April about all things Shakespeare, this is the actual day that marks the momentous occasion, even the Google Doodle is getting involved. It’s been 400 years since Shakespeare died somewhat unexpectedly (no one is sure what he died from) and judging by the effort and the scale in which people are honouring the playwright it’s incredible that he is as important today as he was in his own day.


The best place to see all the Shakespeare action is to follow the #Shakespeare400 tag on Twitter and Facebook. There is a myriad of posts from people offering up fun facts, trivia, quizzes and hosting other fun events. I know Bell Shakespeare here in Australia has a scavenger hunt going to find copies of Othello hidden around various cities and the bookstore Dymocks in Sydney have a whole afternoon of Shakespeare activities planned. Over in Britain the BBC have a range of live broadcasts planned as well when they tick over to the 23rd in a few hours. You don’t even need to do anything grand, go on Facebook and share your favourite quote, favourite movie, rewatch Romeo+Juliet, undoubtedly one of the greatest Shakespeare movies ever made. Even if you just want to share in the comments your favourite play/adaptation/quote, feel free!

I’ve included a selection of links below to get you into the Shakespearean mood and I will be posting on Facebook and Twitter (and Instagram if I can) a bunch of things to help keep the celebrations going strong. Or have a look at past Shakespeare posts from this month and see what fun things I’ve included and links I’ve suggested. It’s important to remember Shakespeare isn’t all stuffy boring plays; he’s so ingrained in history and our society there’s a myriad of ways to enjoy his work.


Good Tickle Brains makes Shakespeare fun

A few wonderful things I will suggest to start off your Shakespeare experience are from Good Tickle Brain, an amazing website where the delightful Mya creates cartoons and funny Shakespeare-themed things. She has recently created a useful flowchart to help you decided which Shakespeare play you should go and see, as well as an awesome Shakespeare Game of Life.

Other things I suggest if you’re in the USA is high tail it over to New York and book a seat to see the hilarious Something Rotten play because while I’ve only heard the soundtrack (on repeat all day every day), I assure you it is amazing.

If reading is more your thing (and why wouldn’t it be) grab a copy of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series for some great Shakespeare moments. The best one is Something Rotten which is filled with all sorts of great and hilarious things about Shakespeare and a very dramatic Hamlet. Or, if fun insults are more your thing, check out this chart of great Shakespearean insults.

As the day goes on and as other countries move into 23rd April there will no doubt be more exciting things revealed but for now take a look at what’s already around and who knows, you may discover something interesting!


Links and Bits

Shakespeare Quiz

Another Shakespeare Quiz

BBC Live broadcast celebrations

Good Tickle Brain

Shakespearean insults

Shakespeare inspired novels

Lessons from Shakespeare

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