Last week we learned that Shakespeare still bestrides the world’s stage, when the British Council asked young adults in five countries to name one person they associate with contemporary UK culture.
And the Bard wasn’t a narrow winner either, but came out overwhelmingly on top. Like Cleopatra, ‘age cannot wither him, nor custom stale his infinite variety’. His closest competition? The Queen herself and ‘wherefore art thou Romeo?’: David Beckham.
So why does a playwright from the Midlands, who’s been dead almost four centuries continue to be the UK’s biggest cultural icon?
Though this might seem like madness, ‘yet there is method in’t’.
For starters, half the world’s school children study Shakespeare, according to research carried out for the British Council and Royal Shakespeare Company in 2011. And as all who have wrestl’d his writings will know, ‘sweet are the uses of adversity’.
Shakespeare remains a constant presence in the classrooms of millions of children worldwide in their formative years – with the stamp of approval from education systems the world over – because he captures the unchanging ‘tides in the affairs of men’, women, kings and countries which speak as clearly to the present as they did to rowdy Elizabethans seeking diversion.
He is both a national and an international treasure.
And for the British Council, teaching English around the world, let’s not forget Shakespeare’s huge impact on the words and phrases we all use today – and not just when we’re speaking English.
If you compliment a kindly Frenchman on his coeur d’or, he has Shakespeare à remercier for his heart of gold. The phrase was coined in Henry V – along with ‘swagger’, as it happens. ‘Addiction’, ‘assassination’, ‘the naked truth’ and ‘too much of a good thing’ are also concepts we can’t live without, but didn’t exist until Shakespeare created them.
Hats off to The Sun last week, for taking the opportunity of the 450th birthday to present us with a montage of some of their front page headlines inspired by Shakespeare’s work and The Guardian for their Shakespeare ‘Top Trumps’ game cards.
And, finally, there’s the one thing that underpins all of this – as Hamlet said, ‘the play’s the thing’. The reason Shakespeare’s words are our words, and his works are our children’s school work, is the substance. Content is king.
The themes contained in Shakespeare’s storylines not only continue to compel, but chime with contemporary life in emerging economies, developing countries and on the streets and thoroughfares of affluent and unequal nations too. The romance, the ambition, the laughs and the skulduggery are all as relevant today as they ever have been – as well as the darker truths.
Shakespeare’s works aren’t just a window into the past – they’re a mirror held up to the present. And they’re a mirror in which people can see their own reflection all around the world.
So when he wrote the phrase ‘the world’s mine oyster’, could even he have imagin’d just how true that would become?
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