Essay: How did Shakespeare influence modern English culture?

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  • Published on: July 20, 2019
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How did Shakespeare influence modern theatre?

What influence did Shakespeare have on modern literature?

What are the relations between Shakespeare’s works and modern film adaptations?

Shakespeare is one of the most popular dramatists and poets the Western world has ever produced. One could argue that Shakespeare was not of an age, but for all time – and most people would agree. It seems self-evident and natural for people think so highly of Shakespeare and his works. A playwright who lived four centuries ago, and is still known across the world must have had some sort of influence on today’s culture.Our profile project will focus on the matter of Shakespeare still being apparent in many aspects of today’s culture. Our main question – How did William Shakespeare influence modern English culture? – will be divided into three sub-questions. For each sub-question, a practical research will serve as a base for our answer. We will visit a modern adaption of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in August to note its connections to Shakespeare’s original work, for our first sub-question. As for our second sub-question, Annemarijn has read the first book (A Game of Thrones) of the A Song of Ice and Fire series. Furthermore, several films based on Shakespeare’s works (listed further on in this plan) will be a foundation for our third sub-question. By getting a closer look at Shakespeare’s works and its adaptations, we hope to learn the answer as to why Shakespeare is still a household name today.


Shakespeare’s influence on modern English culture can be seen in many ways. As modern culture in itself is a very broad term, which includes all beliefs and habits of a member of a certain society, Shakespeare must have made an impact on it, that is just as vast. Aside from theatre, language and film, this impact can be seen in art, science, philosophy and even religion. Many artists (e.g. painters, musicians) are very inspired by Shakespeare’s tragic yet comedic look on life, and incorporated this in their works. Certain ideologies about subjects on the matter of diversity, identity and desire were introduced by Shakespeare, and are still common in literature today. Shakespeare lived before the Age of Enlightenment, but he had many beliefs that were similar to those of that time. Religion was generally not of importance in his plays – unlike science, which gradually became more popular among the working class.

The hypotheses of the sub-questions are given later on in this plan.

Exploratory research

Around 1500 to 1600 the global Renaissance took place. The Renaissance began in Italy (especially in the arts and architecture) and later spread throughout Europe. At the end of the 16th century, England was seen as the most important country of the world, in which new inventions were made and new ways of seeing and thinking developed. In this period the population in England doubled and there was a great change in politics and religion. Henry VII made himself the head of the Church and brought the church and state together. Daughter of Henry VII, Queen Elizabeth (1533-1603), became the symbol of the Golden Age. She had suffered a lonely childhood and had spent much time with her brother Edward. She had had a strict education studying Latin and Greek. In 1558, she inherited England, a country that, at the time, was divided into a religious strife. She united the majority of the English population by her decision to establish the moderate form of Protestantism as the official religion. By her dedication to the welfare of her subjects, she created a national self-confidence in the last years of her reign, for example in literature and in works of such writers as Marlowe, Spencer and Shakespeare[1].

The Renaissance was the beginning of the modern world in politics, society, religion, science, geography and art. London became the most important city of the world. Every nation in Europe had its own personification of the Renaissance. In all nations, even in cities in said nations, the Renaissance was viewed differently. Whereas in one city architecture could be the outlet of new creative ideas, this could be art in another city. Although the Italian Renaissance is most familiar to English students now, literature productions imply something else of that period – The English Renaissance produced some of the greatest works of literature the world has known. The dominant forms of the Renaissance were drama and poetry. Among these poems were a lot of variations like elegy, the tragedy and pastoral[2].

The single greatest invention of the Renaissance was the printing press, which was put into work by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440. His invention made sure that copies of books or documents could be made without too much effort and time. It also meant that writing was approachable for anyone who could do so. New forms of writings developed, but the most important form of expression was theatre. This was the age of William Shakespeare.

The English literature of the Renaissance is divided in several periods.

1500-1558: The Early Tudor Period

1558-1603: Elizabethan Age

1603-1625: Jacobean Age

1625-1649: Caroline Age

1649-1660: Commonwealth Period

The Early Tudor Period is marked by a break with the Church and weakening feudal ties. This led to a less powerful monarchy. The first king of House of Tudor, Henry VII, brought stability and peace in the nation. This was reinforced by his son, Henry VIII.

The second part of the 16th century was dominated by the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. This literary period is also named after her. Most great works were written during her reign. Many writers often involved or referred to the Queen. Humanism (ideology where humans were seen as the centre of the Earth) became really important in literature. Humanism was one of the forces of culture during Elizabeth I’s reign. The Elizabethan Age was ended by her death.

The general characteristics from the Elizabethan Age were:

Strong individualism and high ideals

Great mental and physical activity

Strong nationalism

Recognition of the value of poetry and their writers

Lyrical poetry, in which the author translates their emotions, is very important in the Elizabethan Age. The form used for this, is the sonnet. A sonnet is a poem consisting of 14 lines, two quatrains and two trios. Line 8 or 9 is often a turn or Volta. The most famous poets of that time are Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser and William Shakespeare. After the Elizabethan Age there was a decline in the English Renaissance literature[3].

William Shakespeare was one of the poets/playwrights who wrote his works during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. William Shakespeare is still considered to be the greatest writer of all time even though a lot about him is unknown. For instance, the date of his birth is said to be the 23rd of April, which is also the day on which Shakespeare died in 1616. At the age of 18, he married Anne Hathaway. They had three children together. Around 1585 Shakespeare joined an acting troupe in Stratford-upon-Avon, and thereafter he spent much of his life in London.

Shakespeare wrote most of his plays between 1590 and 1611. His ten greatest plays are Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, King Lear, Hamlet, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Othello, Winter’s Tale, Much Ado About Nothing, Julius Caesar and Twelfth Night.

Queen Elizabeth was a great supporter of Shakespeare’s plays and works. In some of his plays he even made a reference to her. Because of the fact that little is known about Shakespeare’s life, there is a rumour that Shakespeare never existed, and that it was Queen Elizabeth herself who wrote all the plays. Even though the truth will remain unknown, it is somewhat likely that it indeed was Elizabeth. It is obvious that Queen Elizabeth and James I were a source of inspiration for his works – Macbeth is a play which held political actuality for its earliest audiences. After the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603, James VI, king of Scotland, became James I, King of England. In the year of his accession, Shakespeare’s company of players, Chamberlain’s Men, was taken into James I service. After this, they were called the King’s Men. The plays appeared more frequently than they did before James I became king. The links between Macbeth and King James are evident, because it’s no coincidence that a Macbeth is a dramatic play about Scottish history and the king preferred short plays (Macbeth is among the shortest plays)[4].

Nowadays everyone is somewhat familiar with William Shakespeare. Quotes from his plays have become so mainstream that it is a rare occurrence that someone is able to make a connection between him and said phrase. Characters such as Hamlet, Romeo and Lady Macbeth have become memes, immediately recognisable when their name is mentioned.

One of the most fascinating effects of Shakespeare’s plays is that they never fail to coincide with the period in which they are being read, produced, published or discussed. This is because the subjects scripted by him, are applicable to any time – Shakespeare describes different ideologies about men and women, the government and the traits of a true leader. Shakespeare is seen as the inventor of many important modern issues. Certain studies are based on Shakespeare’s characters, and events involving him are part of today’s school curriculum. Moreover, he used ordinary language which made his plays accessible for the whole cultural public[5].

Shakespeare during the Renaissance

The Western European Renaissance marks a transition from the Medieval period to the modern era. The Renaissance embraces a series of religious, economic, and political changes which ripple into areas of science, literature, and philosophy[6]. These changes aren’t noticeable along detailed lines, but the period as a whole is known to have embraced and tolerated change. During Shakespeare’s time some of the changes had already occurred, others were taking place and some were yet to come. For instance, the Protestant Reformation, had occurred fifty years before Shakespeare was born. This is why Shakespeare’s plays lacked of religious commentary. Perhaps the great religious upheaval in Europe caused Shakespeare to assume a neutral position and write about economic change instead. The Renaissance marks the beginning of capitalism – capital holding companies and trading sites were formed. It is suggested that Shakespeare allowed capitalism to develop poets and playwrights.[7]

Short introduction/hypothesis on the sub-questions

Sub-question 1: How did Shakespeare influence modern theatre?

Theatre has never been the same since Shakespeare’s first plays’ performances, and his influence can be noted in contemporary dialogue to expectations of audience behaviour. Up until his time, plays were often reserved for the wealthy and were mirrors of their privileged lives. Shakespeare wrote plays for the masses, about universal truths of human existence. This caused the experience of visiting a play in the theatre to take a populist turn. Audience members engaged with the events taking place on stage, becoming vocal and rowdy. Another matter in theatre that Shakespeare had a big influence on, is storytelling. For instance, the way in which Shakespeare’s plots move forward has helped define modern play-writing. Shakespeare’s complex characteristics have developed a new type of storytelling in which characters’ choices drive plots forward. This means that throughout the play characters undergo changes which define them, as well as the plot[8]. Shakespeare is also known for having brought forth a genre which combines tragedy with humour. Some historians of modern musical theatre suggest that Shakespeare has indirectly changed the form and function of musicals. It is being argued that adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays in the early 20th century acted as a turmoil for musicals. Before this period, musical numbers and performances were placed in between dramatic scenes to act as breaks from the main action. The adaption of Shakespeare’s plays, however, made musical performances integrate into the dramatic story[9].

Detailed questions for this sub-question

How was the theatre culture across the world and specifically in England before, during and after Shakespeare’s lifetime?

How did Shakespeare influence playwrights during his time as well as in the twenty first century ?

How did Shakespeare’s First Folio result in a new genre of musical theatre?

Sub-question 2: What influence did Shakespeare have on modern literature?

Reading Shakespeare now might seem difficult because of how the English language has evolved since the time when his plays were written. However, much of the grammatical structure is similar to that of modern English. In fact, English grammar and spelling were less standardised in Shakespeare’s time than they are now, and his usage of structure and use of language helped shape modern English[10]. Shakespeare’s literary and linguistic influence can be seen in the works of other acclaimed authors. Many expressions and phrases that are being used in daily speech are taken from Shakespeare’s works. All though it is not clear whether he came up with these phrases on his own, Shakespeare was certainly the first to take these possibly already existing expressions and use them in a literary context. Phrases such as “spotless reputation”, “seen better days”, “sounds Greek to me” and “neither rhyme nor reason” made their first documented appearance in Shakespeare’s works[11]. By using just the right combination of words, Shakespeare wrote countless of poems and entire plays so powerful, comedic, tragic, and romantic that many are still being memorised and performed today. Shakespeare’s modern influence on literature is still seen clearly too. For example, Shakespeare is credited with being one of the first writers to use any modern prose (the ordinary form of spoken or written language, rather than a rhythmic structure) in his writings[12].

Detailed questions for this sub-question

What makes Shakespeare different from modern writers?

What is the impact of Shakespeare on other writers? / Why is Shakespeare still credited in literature?

How did Shakespeare introduce proza and blank verse?

What phrases did Shakespeare invent?

Sub-question 3: What are the relations between modern film adaptations of Shakespeare’s works?

Shakespeare’s influence can be seen in countless films over the past century. The stories that he tells have stayed popular throughout the years because the audience can relate to the situations of different characters but also because of the light that is shed on humanity in general. Before Shakespeare, there had not been a lot of films about forbidden love or revenge. The themes of each of Shakespeare’s plays are universal and do not lose meaning over time[13].

Detailed questions for this sub-question

What are the differences and similarities between modern and Shakespearean scripts?

Are there any innovative methods as to the scene-setting, cinematography and design in film adaptations?


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