#10. William Shakespeare

“What point of morals, of manners, of economy, of philosophy, of religion, of taste, of the conduct of life, has he not settled? What mystery has he not signified his knowledge of? . . . What lover has he not outloved? What sage has he not outseen? What gentleman has he not instructed in the rudeness of his behavior?” –Ralph Waldo Emerson on Shakespeare

As we arrive in the Top 10, it’s clear this list has bent toward scientists and statesmen, professions I felt most directly impacted the development of Western civilization. Figures who did not receive as much attention were the artists. When writing the introduction to this series, I acknowledged as much. Here’s what I said, with new bolded emphasis added:

“I had enormous difficulty weighing the importance of artists, musicians, and authors. Ultimately, no artists or musicians made the list. Aside from one exception, no authors made the cut, either, unless that vocation was not their primary one. . . . While I have enormous appreciation for the arts and adore classical music, I simply could not make the case that any one artist or musician changed the West’s development more than those who made this ranking. Perhaps the best way to look at it is that they are superb reflections of an era. They’re essential when studying a period, like an archaeologist unearthing artifacts to draw conclusions about a culture, but they do not shape their era or future ones as much as others on this list.”

Today, we get to that “one exception.” This month, instead of science, war, or government, we focus on the human spirit, particularly a man who connected with it better than anyone. That man was William Shakespeare, the 10th most influential figure in Western history.[1]


William Shakespeare was born in 1564, two months after Michelangelo died. Perhaps that’s how long it takes for the essence of creative genius to float from Rome to Stratford-upon-Avon. Despite being born into an illiterate family, Shakespeare was nonetheless given a strong education thanks to a typically strong English school system. He became literate not only in his native English, but he was also taught Latin and learned from Classical texts as well. At 18 he married Anne Hathaway, and in the next three years they had three children — daughters Susanna and Judith, son Hamnet — and moved to London. From 1585 to 1592, he left little historical record (a period known as his “lost years”) as he probably tried to scratch out a living while writing, directing, and acting.

Inspired by the Italian Renaissance, Shakespeare’s early, optimistic period produced his most romantic, funny, and Italian works, including The Comedy of Errors, A Midsummer’s Night Dream, A Merchant of Venice, and Romeo and Juliet. He was not well received, however. Though some recognized him as a bit of an unrefined genius, he was nonetheless perceived as too rough around the edges. The only company to perform his plays was the one he co-owned. In 1599, this company built a theater on the south bank of the River Thames and called it the Globe.

When tragedy struck Shakespeare, his plays took a different tone. In 1596, his son died at just 11 years old. Shakespeare’s father passed a few years later. As a result, the late 1590s and first decade of the 1600s hosted his most sobering histories — the Henry IVs, Henry V, and Julius Caesar — in addition to his most famous dramas and tragedies — Othello, Macbeth, King Lear, and Hamlet. Unlike his early Italian-based works, this period usually moved the setting to more dreary northern Europe — most notably England and Denmark — a relocation that was later seen as part of the Northern Renaissance. These works rival the best of da Vinci, Newton, and Mozart as the greatest concentrated flourish of creativity in human history.[2]

His final period of plays began after the death of his adored elderly mother. Her death seemed to remind him of his younger, happier days, and he tried to channel her kindness into his works. Reflecting this impression on him were Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest. Though they’re not quite as lighthearted as his early comedies — his midlife tragedies very much left an indelible mark on his work — their resolutions were lighter than anything from his more tragic period. Unlike the dire results of Julius Caesar and Macbeth, the bulk of his last great works culminated in reconciliation and forgiveness.

Aided by an English Golden Age inaugurated by Queen Elizabeth (#19), Shakespeare’s creative talents allowed him to gain modest prosperity. Though nowhere near the success one might now assume he must have had, Shakespeare did well enough to buy the second biggest house back in Stratford before moving there for semi-retirement around 1610. Six years later, he died relatively young — just 52 — from unknown causes. His passing, beyond his family and circle of friends, went unnoticed.


Considering he’s now history’s greatest writer, perhaps no one has ever had a greater gap between their reputation at death and reputation in modern times.[3] In his career he wrote 38 plays (an average of nearly two per year!), 154 sonnets, and an assortment of other works. His failure, perhaps, was that he prioritized working over publishing; he did not seem particularly adept at projecting a reputation. Since he did not publish his works, they made few impacts on a suddenly flourishing English culture. It was not until a decade after his death that friends canonized the First Folio, a collection of nearly all his plays; it’s an assemblage now hailed as one of the most important books ever published in the English language.[4]

In fact, if we consider the impact on English itself, the First Folio is probably the language’s most influential work. English had been in flux for quite some time before Shakespeare. It was a slowly evolving hodgepodge of Anglo-Saxon German, Scandinavian, Latin, and even some Greek. The rules of spelling and grammar were far from standardized. However, by the time Shakespeare’s reputation caught up with his talent (about a century after his death), just about every literate person in England was reading him. He deftly wove together England’s source languages into a considerable canon of works. His phrases and spelling gradually became English norms. Some estimates put the number of words he contributed to the language as high as several thousand. Moreover, some 10 percent of the 17 thousand words he used were of his own creation.[5] After more than a millennium of being a mishmash of constantly changing dialects, Shakespeare’s words — soon combined with English speakers’ desire to read them — gradually formalized the language over the two centuries after his death. This accelerated evolution occurred in time for English to be exported around the globe during the rise and height of the mighty British Empire. Accompanying the Union Jack were Hamlet, MacBeth, and King Lear.

Hurting the argument for Shakespeare’s influence is that it’s hard to say in any tangible sense how else Shakespeare directly influenced Western history. Again, that’s the problem with which I grappled when considering the West’s cultural titans.

Nevertheless, despite my evaluation of scientists and leaders as more influential figures, I still acknowledge the importance that art plays on our lives. We spend a good chunk of our lives consuming art through our various preferred entertainment — movies, TV, books, and more. The consumption of these creative works, from the lowest form of reality TV to obscure foreign films, from pulp novels to timeless ones, affects our personalities, feelings, and souls in a meaningful way. We react. We develop animosity. We emote. We develop empathy. We get inspired. We get influenced. Indeed, for most people, art touches their soul more than cold science ever has, and therefore perhaps the soul of mankind matters just as much as its politics and technology.

No one seemed to understand that soul like Shakespeare. Even if there are rivals to such a claim, earlier writers — from Homer and Virgil to Dante and Chaucer — are nowhere near as read and performed as Shakespeare is today. And even if he was inspired by and borrowed from earlier authors and works, what he did with that inspiration modernized every genre he touched. He has in fact superseded every writer in the Western catalog, and second place is so small in his rear view mirror that he can’t even see it anymore. Modern critic Harold Bloom believes that Shakespeare isn’t just the most important part of the Western canon — Shakespeare is the canon. Bloom argues Shakespeare “sets the standard and the limits of literature.” His ubiquitous works grace Western stages, ballets, screens, and classrooms. He is the earliest author read by just about everyone in the Western world, and he’s still the almost singular source of inspiration for modern comedies, dramas, and tragedies. He has totally defied time.

It’s as if his characters speak to us from our own heart. Contemporary Ben Jonson called him the “soul of the age” and “wonder of our stage.” Modern hero Nelson Mandela, who kept a volume of Shakespeare’s works while in prison, believed “Shakespeare always seems to have something to say to us.” In between, writer and critic John Dryden told us, “He was the man who of all modern, and perhaps ancient poets, had the largest and most comprehensive soul.” Shakespeare fashioned a mirror into which we’ve since stared. Even among all his polysyllabic creativity, he could still connect with us using the simplest of phrases: “To be, or not to be.” It is the deepest question we can ask of ourselves, and no one asked it any simpler or more profoundly.[6]

“When he describes anything,” says Dryden, “you more than see it, you feel it too.” He can touch our souls and leave a lasting mark. In Hamlet we recognize the self-absorbed youth grappling with maturity, responsibility, torturous decisions, the stark realities of the world, and wondering if it’s all worth it. In Romeo and Juliet we feel what it’s like to be more controlled by love than family, logic, and life itself. In King Lear we feel what it’s like to grow old, to lose friends and relatives, and to wonder if this is the end.

Thus, where I found it hard to rank Bach, Mozart, and Michelangelo above any of the people on this list, Shakespeare seemed a much more fitting cultural ambassador. His narratives and their spiritual descendants permeate high and popular culture more than Mozart’s music or Michelangelo’s art. He has inspired countless modern works. He’s invaded our consciousness so deeply that it is now exceedingly difficult not to be derivative of Shakespeare. We think we’re only now in the unimaginative era of sequels, adaptations, and spin-offs, but we’ve been living in that era ever since the First Folio. The characters mentioned above, to say nothing of Lady Macbeth, Othello, Iago, Beatrice, Shylock, Cordelia, Falstaff, and so many more, have become the ultimate archetypes of modern entertainment. He so clearly modeled how we think and how we behave across the genres that his plots not only invite imitation, they demand it. They make imitation inescapable. It’s nothing short of wondrous that, four centuries later, his plays still feel modern. They still work theatrically and visually, and they still connect personally. We can’t say the same for any writer before him. It’s as if he birthed modern entertainment, and he’ll be forever enshrined as its founder.

Though the likes of Michelangelo and Bach missed this list due to the comparatively limited impact of art and music on the development of Western civilization, Shakespeare’s mastery of the written word very much affected it. When Ben Jonson eulogized him by calling Shakespeare the soul of the age, he later corrected himself, stating he “was not of an age, but for all time.” Quite right. No artist, musician, or writer so gently held the human heart and told us why it beats. His paramount contributions to the West’s dominant language and its artistic output make him our leading cultural inspiration — and the 10th most influential figure in Western history.


FOOTNOTES:

[1]This post will proceed with the assumption that there is nothing fishy about Shakespeare’s authorship. Alternative theories comprise the “Shakespeare authorship question.” Some believe, for example, that the person named Shakespeare was just used as a cover story for the actual author who wanted to remain anonymous. In total, conspiracies have proposed up to 80 men and women as the true author of “Shakespeare’s” works. Similarly, some believe it had to have been a collection of writers that created such prolific prose. The scholarly consensus, however, is that these conspiracy theories, unlike Ophelia’s lungs, hold little water.

[2]Honorable mention to PPFA’s breathless coverage of the 2016 election — 200 posts in 400 days!

[3]Other contenders include Vincent van Gogh, Johannes Gutenberg, and, one can only assume, the author of Presidential Politics for America 300 years from now.

[4]Most of his plays have been translated and printed from this single source and might not have survived otherwise. How fragile! They printed 750 original copies of it, and 235 are still known. In 1623, one could buy a copy of the First Folio for one English pound. This century, copies have been sold for as high as $6 million. Not a terrible investment.

[5]These new words include accommodation, amazement, apostrophe, assassination, bloody, castigate, countless, critic, dishearten, dislocate, dwindle, eventful, frugal, generous, gloomy, hurry, impartial, inauspicious, indistinguishable, laughable lonely, majestic, monumental, obscene, premeditated, reliance, sanctimonious, submerge, and suspicious.
     Why all the inventive wording? English hadn’t matured as a language as much as Greek and Latin had. It was still shedding its basic, Germanic routes by the time of the Renaissance. The most educated among the English had long used Latin or French, since these more aged and refined languages had more specific words and phrases for more complex ideas and situations. Rather than borrow from another language too often, Shakespeare adapted words (perhaps modifying a word to change its part of speech, or adding a suffix or prefix), or he even invented them out of whole cloth. In other words, as Plato (#30) told us, necessity was the mother of invention.

[6]Quite appropriate for a play with a first line that doubles as the ultimate introspection: “Who’s there?”

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