Shakespeare 400 years on

thShakespeare lives. That’s his genius.

According to David Crystal, Shakespeare gave us about 700 new words that have remained part of the language, and numerous idioms and turns of phrase: a foregone conclusion, a sorry sight, fight fire with fire, be in a pickle, lie low, more fool you, send him packing, vanish into thin air, the game is up, truth will out, woe is me.

Of course we all love his language, but for me he lives because of what he says about the human condition: the evil men do and how power corrupts the soul. The four great tragedies – “Macbeth,” “King Lear,” “Othello” and “Hamlet” – say pretty much all there is to be said about the vices of man: ambition, vanity, cruelty, jealousy, greed.

When I think of these plays, I think of a pagan world, a vast, war-torn landscape in which tiny men kill one another like flies for the sake of a title or a scrap of land or for sport. Inevitably, the bad die horribly, the good die unluckily, and the dreadful blood-steeped worlds he creates keep turning, blindly indifferent. The gloom is only partially rescued by Shakespeare’s soaring philosophy and poetry.

Now look where we are 400 years later. Slaughter; wars of conquest; a pernicious class system in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer; demagogues; and a world full of refugees displaced because of the tribal instincts that separate people.

If Shakespeare were really alive today, he’d cast a glance at our state of affairs and write another tragedy. Or maybe a comedy about a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.


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