William Shakespeare is often thought of as one of the greatest playwrights of all time. He is put on a pedestal, sometimes literally, and looked up to, his name regularly spoken, between the lips of theatre makers all over the world. His name, iconic, is often followed by praise, and Shakespeare-lovers all over the world have made careers off of exploring and engaging with his work. If Shakespeare had a theme park, it would be busy with his work touching on: love, death, politics, and others that still take the stage today in newer written works.
Many of Shakespeare’s shows and sonnets specifically send a direct message that love is love. We hear this phrase all the time: whispered in Pride month marketing campaigns, shouted at marches, pleaded over conversations about acceptance. Shakespeare said it too- shouted it, whispered it, hit you with it in the stories you’d least expect to find such messaging. The topic of love is one that Shakespeare most directly and personally discusses in his sonnets. Love, though, isn’t the only topic Shakespeare wrote about with honesty and intensity. Taking Shakespeare’s work as he intended, with what we know about his life, is to accept queerness, to face topics of imperialism and colonialism, to take on masculinity and sexism, to question authority, and to gain a humanitarian perspective on the world he occupied, and then left behind.
In 1609 Shakespeare published a collection of his sonnets, which reveal two people he was enamored with: one man and one woman. 154 of the first sonnets are addressed to a male, a Fair Youth, the remaining 26 to the Dark Lady. The sonnets written to the Fair Youth begin softly and friendly, but build to thoughts of love and sensuality, eventually dripping homo-eroticism over his words, stickier than honey, pulling in the reader with it’s golden sweetness, never to expire. Shakespeare fawns over the Fair Youth: his appearance, his persona, his position, and a hopeful future. The last sonnets to this Dark Lady, however, are more lustful, painful, eventually agonizing over the emotional, and certainly sexual, turmoil. There is no honey, or any other sweetener, when Shakespeare concludes his collection about her by seeking out mercury baths to cure an ailment. His conclusion with the Dark Lady is quick, and very final. The way he claims, blames, and then so suddenly dismisses her, is jarring. Shakespeare loves the Fair Youth, and what began as a love for the Dark Lady took a quick turn to feelings of hatred, perhaps blame; perhaps using the Dark Lady as a way to process and expel his internalized homophobia, in a world that pumped it out, then left people to lie in it, a world that still does this, where people still hurt the same way. Shakespeare’s sonnets reveal more than just a hopeful love is love message, but also potential effects of a queer man saturated in his own homophobia, something that has killed people and continues to do so.
Of course, moving beyond his ever-so personal sonnets, Shakespeare maintains his musings on love throughout his plays. Many of his shows take “straight love” and twist it, poking fun at the extremities of it all. Looking first at Twelfth Night, Shakespeare plays with gender and sexuality, examining and then turning into a joke how far men will go for a woman they think they love, but don’t really know. Many of Shakespeare’s shows put a woman in a man’s costume, allowing her to explore for a moment what it may be like to be a man: new clothes, freer speech, less rules, etc. He brings space for physical comedy on top of scripts that have many sexual references and jokes already poking fun at love and intimacy. In the way that young people get a laugh at Comedy Central’s half hour shows filled with crude jokes, young naive protagonists, and often sexual or similarly intimate subject matter, young people can become engrossed in Shakespeare’s shows too- they just need to be given the time and chance.
Today, many people have become increasingly aware of the need to take care of and nurture mental and emotional health. Younger people are seeing the prices paid for ignoring their emotions, and a generation raised in fear of terrorism has created need and desire for open space to take on discussions of mental health and emotional maturity. The need for men to talk about their emotions and have a safe space to process, has been especially emphasized in the media recently. Young men are often told to “man up,” which essentially means, “keep your emotions in,” as if emotions show weakness. It’s a small part of a larger conversation on masculinity and mental health. This has been happening for many years- and is something even Shakespeare took on in Romeo and Juliet, intentionally or not. Besides all of the obvious red flags in this show and the relationship between R and J- and the other, many issues the families had, Shakespeare did a very good job at expressing the pressure on Romeo as a young man to be strong, do his family’s bidding, and find success.
The play opens with young men joking about assault as if it’s normal, it continues to Romeo’s friends teasing him about feeling love like it’s shameful, and goes as far as young men berating older women (the nurse) and younger ones without any forethought. Crude, toxic speech was (is) normal, and when performed with care, this show can convey the pain it causes. The characters in this show are very young, but very real, and honest in a way that most people won’t dare to write a thirteen year old character now. There isn’t a phrase uttered in the play that isn’t similar to something terrible a thirteen year old has heard in 2019- one could even argue that it’s tamer. Romeo and Juliet, however, provides necessary commentary on toxic emotion, masculinity, and mental health. It does so in a way that can be presented as educational, because Shakespeare is often accepted as a playwright to “study” and because of the amount of free information and scripts online, it’s very accessible to people of all ages to reach the show with this new perspective, not just as a cautionary tale of young love.
Sexism and transgender rights can easily take the stage in Measure for Measure. The entire show is about a man’s power over a woman, greatly reflecting social climate in many countries. In Measure for Measure, women are tricked into sex, lied to, condemned for having sex before marriage, and overall jump between being neglected or actively threatened. It’s a show that is greatly relevant to what we see in the treatment of women today, and what women are standing up against. Casting and setting choices can lead to discussions on intersectional feminism versus painful white feminism, Hollywood’s Time’s Up movement, the #MeToo movement, or, like Alchemical Theatre in North Carolina (with whom I must credit inspiration for this portion of the article) take on transgender rights- like they did in a stunning production of Measure for Measure in Protest of HB2 when that law was passed. Shakespeare has great commentary on sexism, classism, misogyny, and assault on women in this show- whether he intended to or not. The show is extremely relevant to today’s many crises because it shares a universal message on justice, and because such minor tweaks can give new, necessary meaning and education.
To read The Tempest is to study colonialism, imperialism, and what happens when a white man oversteps, because America’s reality doesn’t seem to be enough perspective for some people. The tempest is a story of a man and his daughter who end up on an island- there are a number of reasons why that make for a very juicy story, but you can read the play for that. The man, Prospero, enslaves a spirit and a beast who he supposedly rescued from another witch who previously lived on the island. He, a white man, uses these two native beings for his own desires- which includes commanding the killing of other men who end up on the island, shipwrecked. The entire show is a story of colonialism, from Prospero’s initial arrival on the island and taking of resources/enslaving of native beings, to the next round of fools who get shipwrecked on the island after a storm and begin to do just as much harm as Prospero. The show has funny moments, romantic moments, and time to even sing a drunken sailor song, and all of these little charms do well to hide the real story of colonialism, much like America has done on stolen land as well.
Shakespeare was a great writer, no matter his sonnets, comedies, or tragedies, you know by reading Shakespeare, that you’re reading something impactful. We can’t ever say for sure what intent Shakespeare wrote with, what exact meaning he wanted his audience to get, but we can take his words and apply them to today’s greatest trials and loves. We can take his cautions and jokes and easily find relevance because history repeats itself, and greatness is timeless. Give Shakespeare a chance the next time you’re looking for a wild tale to keep you engaged or a romance to charm you. Insert yourself into the story and take something away from it. Shakespeare’s work is still so applauded because it’s still so relevant, you just have to dig for the treasure.