Why Study Shakespeare?


1.      Perhaps his contemporary Ben Jonson put it best::, "[He was] the Sweet Swan of Avon who was not only of an age but for all time."

2.      He was the first writer in European history to earn a living as a playwright, and Shakespeare earned a fortune.

3.      He has remained the most popular playwright in the world ever since, and his plays will be performed more often this year than any others.

4.      While alive, Shakespeare wrote theatre, not literature. He didn’t even bother to publish his plays. (There was no money in it.) He was a working playwright first, the greatest poet in the English language second.

5.      Shakespeare was extraordinarily popular in his day, not just among the intellectuals in London who were members of Queen Elizabeth’s court, but also among the illiterate groundlings who flocked to the Globe to revel in this new found entertainment:


High Art: An ironic analysis of the mortal danger of true love.

Low Art: A villain persuades his best friend that his wife has been unfaithful and convinces him to murder her: sex, violence, betrayal, and racism.


                        High Art: A stark study of evil and its effects on human nature

Low Art: A ripping good tale full of swordplay, sex, madness, witchcraft, and buckets of blood.

      The Tempest:

                        High Art: a meditation on the futility of the attempt to create a utopia.

                        Low Art: A sorcerer has the opportunity to wreak the ultimate vengeance when his enemies 

                        are shipwrecked on his magic island


High Art: An exploration of the end of innocence and the limits of human knowledge

Low Art: A ripping good revenge story full of ghosts, madmen, lost love, graveyards, bloody sword fights and villains with poison.


The rapt response of theatre-goers, critics and general readers has been consistent ever since the plays were written. Shakespeare’s vision of human nature was not only ahead of its time, but it has taken the world four centuries to catch up with him, if we have.


Shakespeare was also a product of his time period, the glorious Elizabethan age, high point of the Renaissance. He lived in the first modern culture:


1.      The City of London: over 150,000 residents, but over one million people, out of a total population in England of three and a half million, would visit London at some point each year.

2.      The Defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 made England a world power for the next 350 years.

3.      London became a center of world trade, one of the capitols of the rising mercantile economy in Europe

-         people in London had spending money in their pockets for the first time

-         land was no longer the only currency of wealth

4.      The Reformation and the Scientific Revolution

-         Shakespeare lived during a time when enormous intellectual changes were taking place.  Presumptions about human nature, about God, about the universe, and about the purpose of life which had held society together for a thousand years were transforming.

-      The reformation led by Martin Luther had split Europe into opposing ideological camps

-         England herself had become a Protestant country fifty years earlier during the reign of Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII. The country since then had been rent by political intrigue between Catholic and Protestant factions.

-         The intellectual community also began to hold skeptical notions about religion for the first time in over a thousand years.

-         Shakespeare was the contemporary of  great innovators in the history of science: Kepler, Galileo, and the great British scientist: Sir Francis Bacon.

-     Shakespeare also knew the great explorers of the age: Raleigh, Drake and Cabot.