Shakespeare—for All Time

By Maeve Maddox

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According to T. S. Eliot, April was :the cruellest month.”

For me, April is Shakespeare’s month, a time to reread some of the plays and perhaps watch some of the film versions.

Like his character Cassius in Julius Caesar, Shakespeare died on his birthday:

William Shakespeare
23 April 1564—23 April 1616.

His contemporary and fellow dramatist, Ben Jonson (1572-1637), declared in his eulogy that Shakespeare “was not of an age but for all time!”

So it has proved.

Although he wrote in English, Shakespeare lives on in world culture. His works have been translated into more than a hundred languages. Non-English speakers quote him in their own languages:

French: “Être ou ne pas etre, cela est la question”.
Italian: “Essere o non essere, questo è il problema”.
Spanish: “Ser o no ser, ésa es la cuestión”.
Portuguese: “Ser ou não ser, essa é a questão”.
German: “Sein oder nicht sein, das ist hier die Frage”.
Polish: „Być albo nie być, oto jest pytanie”.

English-speakers who have never read one of his plays, nevertheless quote his words and turns of phrase in their daily speech:

It’s Greek to me!
Something’s rotten in the state of Denmark.
hoist on his own petard
I have not slept one wink.
too much of a good thing.
neither rhyme nor reason
foregone conclusion
wild-goose chase
break the ice
hoodwink

The sciences draw vocabulary from Shakespeare’s characters.

The planet Uranus has twenty-seven moons.Twenty-four of them are named for characters from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest, King Lear, Hamlet, The Taming of the Shrew, Troilus and Cressida, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, The Winter’s Tale, and Timon of Athens.

At least two medical conditions are named for Shakespearean characters:

Othello Syndrome: The delusion of infidelity of a spouse or partner. It affects males more often than females and is characterized by recurrent accusations of infidelity, searches for evidence, repeated interrogation of the partner, tests of their partner’s fidelity, and sometimes stalking. True to the plot of Othello, the syndrome can be highly dangerous and result in disruption of a marriage, homicide, or suicide.

Ophelia Syndrome: the association of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and memory loss. In Hamlet, Ophelia is described as “divided from herself and her fair judgement” and “incapable of her own distress.” Features of Ophelia Syndrome include irritability, cognitive dysfunction, frank psychosis, generalized or complex partial seizures, and memory loss.

Film versions of Shakespeare’s plays and reworked versions of his plays abound, not just for grown-ups and not just in English.

Japanese film-maker Akira Kurosawa produced two well received Shakespearean adaptations: Throne of Blood (1957), a retelling of Macbeth, and Ran (1985), the story of King Lear.

Other foreign-language film versions of the plays have included a Maori Merchant of Venice (1945), a German Merry Wives of Windsor (Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor 1950), and a French A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Le Songe d’une nuit d’été 1969).

In the US, perennially favorite adaptations include Forbidden Planet (1956), West Side Story (1961), The Lion King (1994), and 10 Things I Hate About You (1999). [Respectively, The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and The Taming of the Shrew.]

There’s even a classic western starring Gregory Peck, Anne Baxter and Richard Widmark that is based on The Tempest: Yellow Sky (1948).

Four hundred years and counting. Shakespeare continues to influence our thinking and help us interpret the human condition.

Not only did Cassius seem to foretell his creator’s death date, he seems to have foreshadowed the Bard’s influence through the ages. Cassius was talking about the killing of Julius Caesar when he said these words, but they resonate in a way that Shakespeare couldn’t have foreseen—for all his scenes in all his plays:

How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents yet unknown!

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, WILL!

Some more Shakespearean idioms

Some more movies based on Shakespeare’s plays

Some book titles lifted from Shakespeare’s lines

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2 Responses to “Shakespeare—for All Time”

  • Barbara Youree

    I love Shakespeare and have read most of his plays. I know his works reflect the words and actions of people in all periods of time, but I learned a great deal about how his characters are still used for naming, and his quotes apply to modern situations.

  • Maeve

    A new production of Romeo and Juliet will air on PBS on Shakespeare’s birthday-April 23 (2021). It is from a stage production prepared for the National Theatre in London, but was filmed because of the pandemic.

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