What’s so Great about Shakespeare?

I was almost one of those students. Though I never had too much trouble understanding Shakespeare in high school, I sometimes wondered why so many adored his works. What changed my mind was comparing the Bard’s work with that of his greatest contemporary competitor: Christopher Marlowe.Be honest. Have you ever slogged through a Shakespeare play and only understood half the words? Have you ever thought Romeo and Juliet is stupider than most modern teen romance novels? Have you ever wondered exactly why Shakespeare is so famous?

You’re not alone. Millions around the world will be celebrating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death on April 23. However, nearly as many try to avoid his works after the obligatory high school reading assignment.

I was almost one of those students. Though I never had too much trouble understanding Shakespeare in high school, I sometimes wondered why so many adored his works. What changed my mind was comparing the Bard’s work with that of his greatest contemporary competitor: Christopher Marlowe.

Marlowe, who lived from 1564-1593, was considered a literary giant before his untimely death in a bar fight. Some modern scholars debate whether Marlowe would have surpassed Shakespeare, had he lived. Marlowe wrote over-the-top, unstable characters who dared to reach for greatness, even if they destroyed their souls in the process.

One of Marlowe’s better-known works is The Jew of Malta. The story centers around a Jew named Barabas who hates the Maltese Christians for taking his wealth. He persuades his only daughter enter a convent in a bid to regain his wealth and wreak vengeance.

Sound familiar?

That’s because Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice deals with similar themes, and even has similar characters. You’ve probably never seen a production of Jew of Malta, though. Why has Shakespeare lasted? I believe there are three reasons:

Shakespeare didn’t write stereotypes. Medieval church mystery plays (as you may have read in last month’s post) teemed with stereotypes: the gullible dupe, the bossy wife, the scheming villain. All of these characters were one-sided: The villain was never a loving father, and the dupe never had his day. Marlowe, at least in The Jew of Malta, was little better. Barabas’s servant, Ithamore, is entirely conniving and is given to his passions. In fact, each of the characters, except for Barabas’s daughter, is given to some kind of corruption.

In The Merchant of Venice, servant Launcelot Gobbo is also unscrupulous. He pranks his blind father and abandons his Jewish master, Shylock, for the Christian Bassiano. However, in Act II, Shakespeare gives Launcelot a chance to debate wether or not he should leave Shylock. Launcelot compares his decision to having a devil and an angel on either shoulder. Like Ithamore, Launcelot is a devious “clever servant” character. Because he questions his actions, though, Launcelot breaks stereotypes.

Shakespeare’s plots are surprisingly relevant. The Jew of Malta is stuck in the Elizabethan era. While the Royal Shakespeare Company’s most recent production cast the play as a parable of political corruption, its overt anti-Semitism makes it hard for some modern audiences to stomach.

The Merchant of Venice has withstood shifting opinions and 400 years of world history. A 2005 film version starred famous actor Al Pacino as Shylock, and the recent Globe production starring Jonathan Pryce opened to strong reviews. Audiences enjoy the play for its discussion of racial discrimination and for its witty and cross-dressing leading lady, Portia.

Shakespeare encourages empathy. Barabas claims a viable reason to take revenge–the Christians confiscated his wealth and his livelihood–but audiences are never invited to feel sorry for him. Every time Barabas is given a chance for redemption, he chooses treachery and vengeance instead. These decisions ultimately lead to his violent downfall.

Shakespeare’s comedic villain, Shylock, is also a vindictive antagonist to the romantic leads. He demands a pound of Antonio’s flesh to avenge himself for a lifetime of discrimination. However, several modern productions have successfully played The Merchant of Venice as a tragedy with Shylock in the leading role. No one can read Shylock’s “hath a Jew” speech or his conversations with his daughter without feeling some level of pity. The very fact that Shakespeare lets Shylock live shows the playwright’s spectacular talent for creating empathy. His writing enables audiences to relate to characters they may not interact with in everyday life.

Modern literature owes a large debt to Shakespeare. His well-drawn characters, playful use of the English language, and powerful plots have left their fingerprints on nearly every English stage play and novel since. Certainly, Shakespeare may not always be easy to understand. His style may not be everyone’s cup of tea.

However, his impact and timelessness are undeniable.

You can read both The Merchant of Venice and The Jew of Malta online.


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