Musings: Shakespeare

Today’s topic is: “William Shakespeare died 400 years ago today. How do you feel about the Bard?”

Like every other American high school student, I was forced to read Shakespeare. I vaguely remember being assigned Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and MacBeth. And I’m sure that on at least one occasion, I got frustrated with the language or pressed for time and went searching for CliffsNotes. (For those of you who have a book report or midterm exam looming, you’ll be happy to hear there are now 26 Shakespearean titles currently available.)

CliffsNotes rack,

I don’t mean to sound like a grouchy old lady, but CliffsNotes are so much easier to get now than they used to be. Back in my day (oh geez, there’s that quintessential old person phrase), 25 years ago, you had to drive to a bookstore and begin by picking out two or three serious books, like Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Only with those in hand could you then skulk to the back of the store where there was a wire display rack covered in bright yellow and black striped books. You could slip this treasure between the classics and proceed to the checkout counter. But the trickiest part was coming up with a believable last-second excuse to not purchase the other two books: “You know what? I just remembered I already have a copy of that at home!” Only once you were safely back at home could you relax. That is until, of course, your parents caught you trying to take shortcuts and took it away!

Today, CliffsNotes are online and FREE. Ugh! Kids these days don’t even have to try hard to cheat anymore. Such a shame.

Anyway, back to Shakespeare. What are my true feelings about him?

I think his work is meant to be seen and heard, instead of read. It is so much more entertaining that way! If you ever get the chance to attend Shakespeare in the Park in Boston, you’ll know what I mean. The audience’s reaction adds a lot to the experience. I think that subjecting high school students to the print version is a great way to scare them away forever. And unfortunately, it will be their loss.

One of the things I love is the sheer number of references to Shakespeare in popular culture that most people don’t know is Shakespeare. Did you notice the similarities between The Lion King and Hamlet? Or how West Side Story is just a retelling of Romeo and Juliet? My favorite British comedy Black Adder even includes Will in the credits for large portions of plot and dialogue.

I’m not a playwright, nor do I intend to become one, because clearly, it’s not as easy as you might think. For example, Shakespeare’s tragedies wouldn’t be considered tragedies unless everyone dies, right? But having to kill off more than 70 people can get a bit repetitive, even for the Bard. Check out this handy infographic:

Death in Shakespeare,

As you can see, Shakespeare was a big fan of stabbing people (which could be easily depicted during staged productions), followed closely by poisoning people, and the always-effective stabbing people with a poisoned sword. But he also threw in a few off-beat ways to eliminate a character, like having them eat hot coals, die from lack of sleep, and being baked into a pie and served to your mother (who then dies also).

All this talk of death made me wonder how Shakespeare himself passed on. According to the folks at

The cause of Shakespeare’s death [at the age of 52] is a mystery, but an entry in the diary of John Ward, the vicar of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford (where Shakespeare is buried), tells us that “Shakespeare, Drayton, and Ben Jonson had a merry meeting and it seems drank too hard, for Shakespeare died of a fever there contracted.”

That’s not nearly as dramatic as he could have written, I’m sure. Then again, didn’t his fellow playwright Christopher Marlow die at 29 in a stabbing? I suppose we all have to go some way or another.

Anyway, even 400 years after his death, Shakespeare is still making headlines. A recent article suggests that the Bard’s skull has been missing from his grave since the late 1700s. In my estimation, that puts him right up there with the beloved-yet-beheaded Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. (And if you haven’t seen [or read Tom Stoppard’s] Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, I highly recommend it. It’s surprisingly hilarious!)


Share your thoughts about Shakespeare in the comments.

~ Phoebe DeCook

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