Shakespeare: Friend, Not Foe

Shakespeare: Friend, Not Foe

This essay, by Angela Chen, age 15, is one of the Top 12 winners of our Sixth Annual Student Editorial Contest, for which we received 10,509 entries.

We are publishing the work of all the winners and runners-up this week, and you can find them here as they post. Excerpts from some will also be in the special Learning print section on Sunday, June 9.


Shakespeare: Friend, Not Foe

Now is the winter of our discontent. Or so Gloucester had said during the opening of “Richard III.” But whereas Gloucester’s winter has been made into a “glorious summer,” this metaphorical winter of our discontent is far from over.

Why is it winter, then? Why, pray tell, am I in such discontent?

It is in more sorrow than in anger that I wear my heart upon my sleeve to say this. We, as a society, are treating the playwright who wrote these lines like the great villain of English literature — when he’s far from it. For goodness sake.

Irrefutably, it’s a rite of passage in high school, dissecting Shakespeare’s long-drawn-out Elizabethan verses. These works all seem Greek to you, don’t they? Why make sense of them on your own at all? And because of this, Shakespeare’s reputation, good riddance, has seen better days.

Brevity is the soul of wit, said Polonius in “Hamlet,” so I will make my voice concise. Have you even noticed eight Shakespearean phrases so far in this article already? That is how vital a presence he has even in contemporary English. When you “gossip,” wait with “bated breath,” feel “gloomy” or “bedazzled” or “dead as a doornail,” you’re revitalizing the Bard’s memory. You “have not slept one wink” last night? Neither did Pisanio from “Cymbeline.” Did you ever think Rose and Jack “star-crossed lovers”? So were Romeo and Juliet.

How can we defame a man who has changed the very face of language? How can we dismiss him as irrelevant, the original harnesser of the nuanced thing that is human emotion, just because we cannot understand him word-by-word?

It is time that we banish the notion of Shakespeare’s works being highly academic, exclusive-to-scholars “scripture.” Why? Because Shakespearean plays are built from emotion. Complaints on not being able to understand his words, in fact, trace all the way back to when his plays were first performed. So what if everyone cannot understand every word of Hamlet’s dense, long-winding soliloquies? This is Shakespeare’s very genius: to portray the raw anguish and internal strife of a young prince’s lonely, grief-stricken heart. You need only follow the emotion, and the plays are lush with it.

As you read, acknowledge also the timelessness of this work. Motifs of racism and privilege in “Othello” and “The Merchant of Venice.” Ambition and female agency in “Macbeth.” Jealousy and unrequited love in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Blackened vengeance in “Hamlet.” These are ideas that transcend time, the things you relate to without having to understand every word on the page.

Shed your presumptions. Open your mind. Only then, pick up a play, and you will find within it a dish fit for gods.

Works Cited

Anderson, Hephzibah. “Culture — How Shakespeare Influences the Way We Speak Now.” BBC News, BBC, 21 Oct. 2014.

Brown, Stephen. “Why Shakespeare? Because It’s 2016.” TedXStMaryCSSchool, 13 May 2016, Oshawa, 656 Taunton Road East.

Gaze, Christopher. “Shakespeare Is Everywhere.” TedXVancouver, 21 Mar. 2012, Vancouver.

Shapiro, James. “Shakespeare in Modern English?” The New York Times, 7 Oct. 2015.