Being a theater major, I've always loved William Shakespeare and his work. There is no doubt that Shakespeare has impacted all of our lives whether we realize it or not. A lot of common movie plots from today were based on his work, and he invented many words and phrases that are still noticeable in our daily vocabulary. This past week I spent a couple of days at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, and my love for The Bard grew even more. I spoke with a history professor at Southern Utah University named Ryan Paul, and we had a great conversation about Shakespeare and his impact on modern society. These are just five of the multitude of lessons that Shakespeare is still teaching us here and now.
1. Rumors spread like wildfire
This lesson is apparent in almost every single one of Shakespeare’s plays. Someone overhears one thing, which isn’t really what it appears to be, and then they go tell the next person who tells the next person, and so on and so forth. This is explicitly seen as one of the major themes of his play "Much Ado About Nothing." The whole plot essentially moves on overheard conversations and rumors that are purposely being spread around. During our conversation, Ryan Paul related this theme to today's use of Facebook. I thought it was very interesting and very true. Anyone can say anything on Facebook, or the internet for that matter, with little to no credibility and suddenly the entire world sees it as the truth. The same thing happened back in Shakespeare’s time only word traveled by mouth instead. We can learn from this by understanding that what people say might not always be true, and it is always best to go straight to the source or have proof that what people are saying is accurate.
2. Have accountability for your actions
No one really seems to get away with anything in Shakespeare’s works. Somehow, there is always someone sneaking around somewhere who knows the truth, and ultimately the truth will always come out. After the truth is revealed, the consequences are dealt out, whether that be death like we see in "Macbeth," proclaiming to the entire town that you were wrong like we see in "Much Ado About Nothing," or even a descent into madness like we see in "Hamlet." No matter what happens, people are held accountable for what they have done. This occurs in the real world as well. We often see people being locked up or even put to death for crimes they’ve committed, public apologies made, and even the personal repercussions that people have to deal with. This also happens in reverse. I am a firm believer in karma, and when good deeds are done, they are rewarded as such and vice versa. This can teach us that there is no shortcut or easy way out. We must be aware of all consequences to our actions, good and bad.
3. Nothing is black and white
This is one of the most important lessons that Shakespeare has to teach us (I know recent times has us associate these words with race, but let's step past that idea for a moment here). Ryan Paul said we get so caught up in this idea that “the good guys should wear white hats and the bad guys should wear black hats.” Our conversation continued and he brought up some interesting points that Shakespeare makes deliberately clear. Not everything will go the way we think it should. For example, Claudio, this handsome and loving young man that woos Hero and the audience in "Much Ado About Nothing" does something one wouldn’t expect from that type of character: he is quick to jump to conclusions and loses his temper. In doing so, he becomes violent and cruel against the woman he loves in a public setting. On the other hand, Borachio, who is the right hand to Don John in "Much Ado About Nothing" and is very mischievous, decides to come clean about all of his wrongdoings once he sees what a mess he has caused. “We live in the grey,” Ryan Paul said. “Good people can do bad things, and bad people can do good things.” Our fantasy of always knowing who to trust and who to blame cannot be reality because life is much more complex than that.
Now this isn’t so much of a lesson as it is the way that his lessons are able to transcend time and reach us. He was able to picture us here and now and somehow write to please audiences all across time. The relationships that we see and the characters themselves are strikingly similar to the ones we see now, the only difference being the time period. If a young girl from today was in Juliet’s same position, it is very likely that she would feel the exact emotions Juliet felt. Likewise, if a father and daughter from today were in Leonato and Hero’s position, it is quite possible that their relationship would be the same. It is also likely the father would react the same way Leonato did if his daughter betrayed him as well. The main difference between Shakespeare’s plays and our lives today — besides the language — is the circumstances in which we live. When looking closely, not a whole lot about human beings and their interactions with one another has changed over the years.
5. How to be human
Shakespeare was an absolute genius. Everything he wrote is able to take the audience on this roller coaster ride of emotions. In one sitting of a show, a person can feel complete joy, utter sorrow, engulfing passion, and so much more. At every single Shakespearean show I have seen, I have laughed, cried, and held my breath in suspense. You go through the entire spectrum of life and emotions in about three hours. On top of that, you can learn more about yourself and those around you by watching these characters interact with each other on stage. It is outstanding to see the kinds of things you will finally understand about life that you wouldn’t have even considered prior to walking into that theater. Among all of this art and complexity that Shakespeare created, we often forget that he was a human being, too. He was a human living among other humans, and he was able to perfectly transcribe everything in a way that anyone at any time could understand.
I wish there was a way I could take The Bard himself out to lunch and thank him for everything he has taught me. I’m very grateful that I was able to spend a couple beautiful days at the Utah Shakespeare Festival so I could remember how great he is and some of the reasons why theater is so impactful. There are plenty of other ways that William Shakespeare is still very relevant today, and I promise you that if you give yourself a chance to love Shakespeare, you won’t regret it.
Special thank you to Ryan Paul and everyone at the Utah Shakespeare Festival.