Chicken and Egg Shakespeare

This question has been explored by greater minds than my own, but let’s talk about the … universality? … of Shakespeare.

We know that modern audiences tend to appreciate a story with even the hint of a Shakespeare plot line : West Side Story.  Ten Things I Hate About You.  Lion King.   “Hey,” people tell each other, “Did you know that’s based on a Shakespeare story?”

Thing is, we also know that Shakespeare simply rewrote existing stories.

So if you remove Shakespeare’s words and retreat back to the story, where does the inherent value and appeal come from?  Do we like it because we associate it with Shakespeare and therefore lift it up more than we might? Or are we looking at the deeper story that predates Shakespeare, that caused even Shakespeare himself to say “Hey, that’s good, I should borrow that.”

Take Romeo and Juliet.  We know that Shakespeare rewrote that one.  He added characters and changed some stuff around.  So what if we staged the Romeo and Juliet story today, without those additions? Would it still work? And if it didn’t, would that be because it wasn’t as good a story until Shakespeare got to it? Or has the Shakespearean version become so ingrained in our brains that if we recognize it as “not Shakespeare” then it’s just not as good?

6 thoughts on “Chicken and Egg Shakespeare

  1. You seem to be hitting a lot of questions recently that I myself have spent a lot of time thinking about. I seem to be bombarding your comments today, but the topics are just too interesting to pass up. Doesn't it seem Odd to you that the history of English Literature seems to use Shakespeare as its focal point? Whether we believe it or not, there seems to be this consensus that says anything that came before Shakespeare was leading the way for his works and everything after has just been trying to compete with him.

    As I have stated before and I am sure I will state again. Thinking of Shakespeare as "original" is just too modern of a perspective and ends up with Shakespeare in a box that is much too small for him. The A&E 2000 "100 greatest people of the last 1000 years" (or what ever it was called) had a guy talking about how original Shakespeare was. But in my mind the thing that makes Shakespeare great is his ability to tell stories that everyone had already heard a million times in a way that was new and interesting and restorative.

    Therefore, good adaptation of Shakespeare does the same. Whether you use his words or not, if you are improving upon the familiar story in new and interesting ways, I think it is a success and that is what Shakespearean adaption seems to be about.

  2. Just look at Harold Bloom's Shakespeare: The invention of the Human. The title alone shows that he thinks that Shakespeare is the end-all be-all of Literature (and apparently Human Existence).

  3. Glad you're enjoying it, Monica. I think that when I manage to hit on the same sorts of questions everybody else wants to talk about, we get some of our most valuable discussion.

    "there seems to be this consensus that says anything that came before Shakespeare was leading the way for his works and everything after has just been trying to compete with him."

    I think you just managed to summarize exactly what I was trying to say in the original post. 🙂 Thanks!

  4. I think what makes Shakespeare such a pivot point in literary history has a lot to do with the evolution of the English language after the Protestant Reformation. A lot of "English literature" as it existed before Shakespeare, had labrynthine syntax and owed much of its vocabulary and pallor to the Latin influence of the Catholic church. Writing in the vernacular for creative reasons just wasn't done (let alone widely published.) Latin was the main language of scholars–who would have the best access to source material and would have the education and means to write themselves. Shakespeare's source material just didn't have the finesse and masterful craft that we recognize and appreciate in his writing. Just read this small piece of Romeus and Juliet by Arthur Brook (1562).

    There are strong feelings, but no sense of person, of character, of human experience. That's what modern readers expect and Shakespeare was one of the first to provide it. He played with Latinate roots as well as the "vulgar" Anglo Saxon ones. His literary voice is just more recognizable to us as modern readers, so he seems to stand out as a "before"/"after" innovator.

    Once writers began to explore their thinking in their own language rather than filtering it through Latin, and their work was accessible through the invention of the printing press, writers caught the publishing bug and our sense of modern English was born.

  5. I completely agree with Miss P. Shakespeare's universality or appeal is rooted in his ability to speak in multiple voices, each of which carry the weight of the human experience. Brooke is a fantastic example, his meter is singsong while Shakespeare's (and his contemporaries) is more natural (thanks to the break in the iambic pentameter line). I think that the originals haven't the place of Shakespeare's re-creations because they do not possess his poetry. Poems written in up to 50 voices per play. Pretty amazing.

  6. The problem is that it is circular logic that places Shakespeare in that pivotal role:

    Shakespeare was the first prolific writer to use a language that we, a modern audience can understand. That is why he is popular.


    Because of Shakespeare's prolific writing and his popularity, his English became the standardizing tool for modern English.

    The intentions of statements are opposed to one another. Yet they are both valid assertions.

    The problem with making one person the focus of a series of events is that it requires to you make value judgments about everyone and everything surrounding them. Forcing history to take the shape that suits your argument.

    Shakespeare, no matter how much I enjoy his plays, is not the end all be all of English literature. In fact for nearly 300 years many of his plays were preformed in adaptation because people didn't like the way he ended some of his plays. Still today many people don't like most of his plays. I love EVERY one of his plays that I've read, but I would never call him the greatest writer of all times. or even of the English language because of the value judgments such a statement forces me to make.

    Instead of saying Shakespeare was great because… it is more interesting to say People thought Shakespeare was great because…

    That way when we begin to look at the reasons for it, we can evaluate them without the awe of believing that Shakespeare can do no wrong which allows us too see what is actually going on in his texts.

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