Perspective: Why Study Shakespeare?

Feb 1, 2019

An acquaintance asked, “Why study Shakespeare? There’s no rhyme or reason in it.” A friend from the YMCA told me it was “all Greek” to her. These phrases were coined by Shakespeare. 

Our common speech is a display of Shakespearean words and phrases. English isn’t just an alternative set of sounds for concepts and feelings already expressed by other languages. It’s a unique expression of a shared, living identity—a generative organism whose breathing genesis, evolution, and mutations are discoverable. Sometimes the keys to our linguistic identity are hidden in plain sight: in the very words and phrases we think with. Shakespeare’s contribution to this formation is unmatched. 

To illustrate his ever-presence in our minds and lips, I began writing this radio essay with phrases first found in his plays. I wrote, “In the United States, studying Shakespeare has seen better days, being more honored in the breach than in the observance.” I realized I could write these phrases forever and a day. And In my mind’s eye, here was the be-all and end-all to any questions regarding the relevance of Shakespeare. But the whole essay was a collection of clichés, like a twice-told tale! 

There are books claiming Shakespeare invented our English-speaking humanity. That’s wrong, but language shapes thoughts, perceptions, and fantasies. In an age of self-fashioning, Shakespeare sheds light on our linguistic identities—and on such stuff as dreams are made of. 

I’m Bill Gahan and that’s my Perspective.