His poetry and narratives still speak to us truthfully, despite the social, cultural and historical changes of the last four hundred years.
His lasting and seemingly unabating popularity can in part be attributed to his ability to illuminate the human experience. Essentially, he understood the nature of human beings and the essence of feeling, illustrating emotion in a way never before seen and never since.
Shakespeare knew something that we are increasingly loath to acknowledge; that there is no technical fix for the problems of humanity. He knew that our problems are ineradicably rooted in our nature and he atomised that nature with a characteristic style never since equalled. Every time we consult his work, we emerge with a deeper insight into the heart of our own mystery. He encourages introspection and inspires passion.
These complex human emotions, inexplicable by science, are summarised in eloquent but simple verse, touching on every kind of sentiment. His readers can relate to the passion and reaction whilst losing themselves in his remarkable stories.
Tolstoy and Sophocles told of tragedies and people in trouble, Homer told of men at war and adventure, Terence and Mark Twain told cosmic stories, Plutarch told histories, Dickens melodramatic ones and Hans Christian Anderson told fairy tales.
But Shakespeare told every kind of story; comedy, tragedy, history, stories of love, adventure, melodrama, fantasy, fairy tales; each of them told so brilliantly they have become immortal.
And in every great story live great characters, no more so than in the works of Shakespeare. The truly compelling characters, particularly his tragic heroes, are unrivalled and unequalled in literature, dwarfing and conquering even the sublime creations of the Greek tragedians.
Their popularity reigns because of their complexity. We can see ourselves as gentle Hamlet, flawed by procrastination, forced against our better nature to seek a murderous revenge; we want Romeo to fall in love with us for our beauty and articulate words; we dream of being as noble and great as the initial Macbeth still unmarred by overruling ambition, as kind as Desdemona, as beautiful as Olivia, as heralded as Othello; to be passionate and honourable enough to love and to fight completely against the wills of society or the norm, sometimes hindered by a moral conscience, often to tragic end. But most of all, we want to understand them. Shakespeare offers just enough ambiguity to evoke thought, inspiration and a subjective interpretation and answer about each of his creations.
But above all and perhaps most obviously, it is the words, the language and Shakespeare’s ability to turn a phrase that have immortalised his work.
His infinite influence on literature and the English language since can be realised by the number of his phrases now used as common clichés.
Authors use his lines as titles; Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ is a line from The Tempest, Robert Stone’s ‘Dogs of War’, a phrase read first in Julius Caesar and ‘The Undiscovered Country’ which Arthur Schnitzler took from Hamlet, to name only a few. It seems Ben Jonson was right when he said that Shakespeare “was not of an age, but for all time”.