Shakespeare: the work

William Shakespeare the man may still be something of a mystery, but William Shakespeare the playwright is a towering figure in world literature. His plays have been performed, adapted, scrutinised and criticised inside out — yet they live on as supreme examples of poetry and drama. We turn to them to learn about the Elizabethan era in which he lived, the way our language functions, and the inner workings of the human psyche. Four centuries after his death, Shakespeare is as relevant — and entertaining — as ever.


In Shakespeare’s time, women were prohibited from acting onstage. Yet despite — or because of — the all-male casts, the fluidity of gender forms a through line in his work. Modern productions have exploited this by casting female actors in male roles. Was Shakespeare ahead of his time? Where do gender identities stand today?


The Elizabethan England in which Shakespeare lived was strictly Protestant, though some scholars believe that he was a covert Catholic, or even an atheist. This confusion says something about the complex treatment of religion in his work, which is full of references to pagan gods and mystical powers. How different is our religious life today?


As a storyteller, Shakespeare looked to the past, drawing on age-old tales for inspiration, and the future, anticipating modern techniques of self-reference. Most importantly, he could spin a damn fine yarn, as shown by the countless retellings of his plays. But what makes a good story, anyway?


Shakespeare may have been a brilliant playwright, but he was lucky to live in an era that was ready to appreciate his talents. The establishment of large public theatres in the late-16th century brought plays to more people than ever before – and from all social classes. Is theatre still seen as an art form for the masses?


Every time you talk of ‘strange bedfellows’ or a ‘heart of gold’, you owe a debt to Shakespeare. He greatly expanded our everyday vocabulary, but his influence on English does not end there: he helped popularise blank verse, and coined new poetic and grammatical devices. Four centuries on, what state is our language in?