The works of William Shakespeare are staples in our educational system at least from secondary through college levels. This has been true in some degree for more than 400 years, virtually since these works were first performed. In Shakespeare's time, many of these plays were very popular, and they were reprinted and performed over and over in the centuries since. The use of these works in education shows that they are valued and that they impart some of this value to students, raising the question of how these plays have affected and changed society and what values they nurture in students today.
These plays first have contributed much to our language. William Shakespeare contributed to the language by perpetuating a large vocabulary -- which is why many have cited the large vocabulary of the plays as evidence that the largely uneducated Shakespeare could not have written the works attributed to him -- and also in the poetic nature of the dialogue he created. Shakespeare's vocabulary has been estimated at about 20,000 words, including Renaissance technical terms, derivations, compounds, archaisms, and idioms (McArthur 928). Many aphorisms and enriching, poetic descriptions and terms have been carried through from Shakespeare to common usage and to other literary works. The popularity of Shakespeare's works over many centuries has helped perpetuate the power of this language, and again and again other writers have turned to Shakespeare for inspiration and for some phrase that would then become popular even to many who did not know its origins.
The language often seems difficult to understand when we read it today, but the sense of what is being said is much easier to follow than specific words, phrases, or passages might be. Shakespeare deals with issues of life and death, with philosophical issues that have concerned human beings since the beginning of time, and so issues that concern us all today. Those who experience Shakespeare are thus better able to understand the issues, controversies, and arguments of religion, philosophy, literature, and even science. Those who study history can learn a great deal from Shakespeare not only about the Elizabethan era in which he lived but also about earlier periods in British history, depicted in plays like Richard II and Richard III or other history plays. The history may not always be perfectly accurate, but the plays do reflect the arguments and controversies that swirled around many of the rulers of England in these earlier eras.
The reader of Shakespeare certainly learns a lot about the people of Elizabethan England. Many of the attitudes of the people of the time can be gleaned from Shakespeare's plays, among other contemporary sources, and the social divisions are clear in these works as they would have been in the audience itself. The hierarchy of the Great Chain of Being is often referred to by Shakespeare, notably in the way the misdeeds or failures of rulers would be reflected in the whole kingdom because the kingdom took its cue from the ruler, just as the greater universe would also reflect such turmoil in storms and the like. Another element often seen is the elevation of England itself to the center of the known universe, with other regions seen as lesser in every way. Papp and Kirkland note the antipathy many in England felt toward foreigners (and, indeed, the British are still considered to be xenophobic in some degree), and the authors offer a reason for this:
For England, unlike the American nation it eventually spawned, took no pride in becoming a melting pot for many cultures. Even though Elizabethans were living in an age when explorers, scholars, merchants, and writers were flinging open the doors to other cultures, most people preferred to hang back, tarrying on the well-trodden thresholds of ignorance and fear (Papp and Kirkland 49).
In addition, there was always a certain sense of superiority that colored how the British viewed others:
Hand in hand with the Elizabethan people's provincial outlook went the certainty that they were better than everyone else. Once the English had more or less settle the religious question, built up a powerful navy, and reestablished themselves as a power to be reckoned with in international politics, they experienced a wave of intense patriotism (Papp and Kirkland 50-51).
By the time of Elizabeth, the Great Chain of Being also reflected the new central position accorded to man, seen as standing midway between Heaven and Hell, and the new centrality of human beings was an important element in Renaissance thought. Shakespeare is one of the supreme examples of the flowering of the Renaissance in literature, and his various works exemplify the concerns of the Renaissance, centered more on man than in previous ages, seeking a new understanding of the importance of life on this earth, and built on a new respect for learning and a revival of the artistic sensibility of the ancient world, especially the Greek world. During the Renaissance, there was a new value placed on individualism and personal genius, and the ideal of the Italian Humanists was similarly that of the emancipated man of many-sided genius:
The medieval Christian ideal in which personal identity was largely absorbed in the collective Christian body of souls faded in favor of the more pagan heroic mode -- the individual man as adventurer, genius, and rebel (Tarnas 227).
The reference here is to individuals involved in the political life of their city, but it is applicable to other realms as well. The epitome of the Renaissance man was Leonardo da Vinci, whose intellectual energies were brought to bear on a wide variety of areas of human inquiry. Shakespeare fits the mold in a number of ways. Though he did not expand beyond literature, he demonstrated in his writings such a wide knowledge of many different fields that subsequent generations have doubted one so low-born could have written the plays and poems attributed to him or have acquired the knowledge he has incorporated into his work. The way he refers to these many different fields of endeavor suggests as well that his audience had a certain familiarity with many of these ideas, at least sufficient to recognize the meaning he was imparting.
Clearly, our own era developed from the period we read about in Shakespeare, helping us understand how modern thought developed and linking us to the Elizabethan period directly in many ways. Much of that thought developed because of Shakespeare, since Western thinkers return again and again to the works of Shakespeare for inspiration and support, quoting from them to bolster their own ideas and to show connections between modern thinkers and our past. Richard Lederer notes this connection as he cites the need for something to draw us together as a culture and chooses Shakespeare:
To enter the company of educated men and women, we must acquire a code of reference and allusion that helps us to communicate concisely and pithily. To accomplish that, we must explore the vast territory on which our American culture is grounded. One of the grandest parcels of reference and allusion is the luminous land of William Shakespeare (Lederer C3).
In discussing the development of curriculum, Basil Singh notes how arguments can develop over what should and should not be included, and states,
In the field of literature, for instance, some works by writers such as Shakespeare may transcend cultural boundaries and his works may be important in defining and shaping our literary and dramatic traditions (Singh 18).
The modern reader of Shakespeare thus has a stronger understanding of these traditions and is more in touch with the underlying literary and dramatic concepts than someone who does not read Shakespeare and does not make these connections. As noted, of course, much literature and drama makes reference to Shakespeare so…