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Shakespeare's plays offer insight into current issues and personalties

Shakespeare's Globe Theatre
Shakespeare's Globe Theatre

Is Shakespeare relevant? And if we think he is relevant, do any of us have enough time or reason to study his plays? Take “Julius Caesar.” Who has the time to reread or see it? First, you need time to forget that your only copy of the play shared a high school locker with your dirty gym socks, and then you need the time to visit a bookstore, or at least to go online for the text or video. Last, of course, you have to find the motivation to read or watch the play, whether you find it here in this short piece, or from someone else.

If you give the play a deep reading or see a well-acted production, you are immediately drawn into the action by terse dialogue set to manly poetry. This tone lends impact to the characters, like ruthless Cassius “in envy of great Caesar,” who hornswoggles decent Brutus into the murder of Caesar.

On a broader level, the same style characterizes the strife of egos in opposition that can still rule in our contemporary world, and can do so without a nod to those at their mercy. Recently, for example, British Prime Minister Tony Blair was accused by some of acting like an autocrat with absolute power, like that the conspirators feared Caesar would wield. Blair similarly incurred the wrath of many powerful people when he bypassed Parliament, and did not consult with his party advisers before making key decisions.

The breadth and depth of the Bard’s insight makes it easy to find parallels in almost all his plays to present-day personalities and events. Oscar Pistorius, for instance, can be seen as a modern-day Othello. The athlete, like Shakespeare’s Moor, rose to fame, only to fall from grace in what may have been a fit of fatal jealous rage. And Hamlet? Well, President Obama looked like the brooding prince on at least one occasion. Alone at the top, he was hesitant to move against President Assad in 2013, though at the same time, he was deeply offended by Syria’s actions. Obama may have helped create his own stalemate by not acting, and have missed a chance to take advantage of a strategic option.

Shakespeare’s plays are an instructive, measured way to learn the dynamics of human behavior. Corporations even hire professional actors to perform “Henry V” and other plays to teach teamwork to their executives. According to Marjorie Garber in “Shakespeare and Modern Culture,” these efforts often use “bare-bones” Shakespeare as a means to a teach employees, but occasionally go so far as to portray Shakespeare's characters with all their original complexity.

400 years ago, Shakespeare brilliantly illuminated life itself with his great plays, and they continue to instruct at the same time they entertain, if we let them. Some think we are dumbing down the Bard, but with all the press, analysis and performances of Shakespeare and his work, many think he will likely survive in his original glory.

Indeed, according to David Marshall, the former Chairman of the Department of English at Yale University, the many ongoing academic and other endeavors to preserve the Bard show we want to understand Shakespeare, and “don’t want to bury him.”

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