It’s more than 400 years since his death, and the works of William Shakespeare still have a strong impact on modern western culture. Perhaps more than any other artist from his period, Shakespeare’s works have stayed relevant enough to make their way into our language, politics, entertainment industry, and even the way we perceive history.
In this article, we’ll be taking a closer look at how Shakespeare has influenced some of the less obvious facets of our culture.
With his literary works, Shakespeare contributed around 1,700 words and phrases to the English language, including Green-Eyed (to describe jealousy), to Elbow (as a verb), Bloodsucking, and even the first recorded use of the word Anchovy in written English.
There is some debate about whether many of these words were already in common usage, and Shakespeare was simply the first to write them down. However, we do know that the Bard took artistic license with the English language, changing nouns into verbs, combining two words into one, and adding additional suffixes or prefixes in search of the perfect word to fit the scene.
Shakespeare is responsible for the elevation of certain historical characters through is works, the most famous being Cleopatra.
Considered somewhat of a historical side note before Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra, the titular character was so elevated in the public consciousness that she would go on to have 17 films made about her, including one of the most expensive films of all time, a range of beauty cream, soap, and lotions, thousands of art pieces, and even a set of free Cleopatra slots from Casino Smash.
All of this despite the most memorable details of her life, such as being killed by the venom of an asp, bathing in milk, and much of the detail around her relationships with Ceasar and Anthony being made up by Shakespeare to make his play more interesting.
While Cleopatra gets the glamorous end of the stick, Richard III is slightly less fortunate. The image of the twisted and evil monarch with his hunched back was so fixed in our cultural idea of the man that people were shocked that, when his remains were found beneath a Leicester car park, that he was a fairly standard shape, not the monster Shakespeare portrayed.
Shakespeare’s works are unashamedly political, with plays like Othello, Hamlet, and Macbeth still being held up as masterclasses in how to tell a gripping political story. Perhaps because of this, many political leaders from around the globe have been inspired by Shakespeare.
Despite growing up nearly 6,000 miles from Britain, Nelson Mandela was hugely fond of Shakespeare’s works and kept a volume of them with him during his incarceration, often reading from it to groups of other inmates.
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both visited Shakespeare’s grave in Stratford, and there is even a statue of the Bard in New York’s Central Park, which was erected after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
One of the few surviving examples of Shakespeare’s is in a manuscript for a play called The Book of Sir Thomas More. In this collaborative work, Shakespeare contributes more than 147 lines of a handwritten monologue calling for mercy and kindness on behalf of an immigrant population, a speech that is as relevant now as it was then.
Such is the draw of Shakespeare that his works are often translated into other media. Verdi loved Shakespeare’s plays, and Macbeth, Otello, and Falstaff are considered three of his best operas.
Romeo and Juliet has become one of the most translated works in human history, having started as a play, and then being adapted into a ballet, a song by Taylor Swift, the basis for West Side Story, and a celebrated Baz Luhrmann film.
Famous actors have always clamored to play the lead in Shakespeare adaptations, with names like Sir Ian McKellen, Laurence Olivier, Orson Welles, and John Gielgud attached to the more famous renditions of his plays.
With Shakespeare’s works continuing to inspire many art forms, there is no doubt that they will also continue to have a significant influence on our cultural roadmap going into the future.