Renaissance Man

Written by Jenn Thornton

Four-hundred years after the death of Shakespeare, the Bard is still speaking our language.

Holy Trinity Church. Photo courtesy of Shakespeare’s England (Shakespeares-England.co.uk)

Holy Trinity Church. Photo courtesy of Shakespeare’s England (Shakespeares-England.co.uk)

William Shakespeare—the most hallowed name in the English language, a great deal for which he’s profoundly responsible—transcends time. Four centuries after his death, by virtue of his work, Shakespeare has what few else can claim in a rapidly changing age: relevancy. 

Credit creative liberties. Borrowing from the Bard is something of a cottage industry. Even before anointing Lin-Manuel Miranda the toast of Broadway for his much hipper Hamilton, we’d shown Shakespeare what might be considered an uncommon tolerance for adaptations of his vast oeuvre, giving an audience to the great, the unlikely and the highly improbable (like the Beatles performing a scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream on TV). Plausible performances saw Denzel Washington suit up as Brutus for a modern-day Julius Caesar and Rita Moreno level everyone opposite her in West Side Story (the beloved retelling of Romeo and Juliet as scored by Leonard Bernstein). As a litmus test of greatness, Hamlet runs the table, recruiting the likes of thespians Laurence Olivier, Ralph Fiennes, Benedict Cumberbatch and Mark Rylance to play the Dane.

In applauding the bravura performances of Shakespeare’s works, we applaud humanity itself—the one relatable thing behind the sea of “thee,” “thou,” and “thy.” Poetry and plays that touch the deepest reaches of the human soul are why Shakespeare still matters, his frequent themes of love, ambition and betrayal calling and connecting us to a time that has proven itself for all time. 

It is why we continually sit through so many known outcomes. Why we’ve watched Misty Copeland dance Juliet knowing full well the character’s fate, and why we’ve listened to Ian McKellen rap the Bard’s eighteenth sonnet, starting with “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” When it comes to Shakespeare, “too much of a good thing” just doesn’t come into play—unless, of course, it’s As You Like It