Literature You Should Know: The Works of William Shakespeare

Remember that “hopeless lute player” I mentioned last time?*

Did you know he had a direct effect on the composition of The Lord of the Rings?

1377606_700850756628050_3911591133837439565_n
Mathew Baynton and the cast of BILL

In “On Fairy-Stories,” Tolkien gives Macbeth as an example of the incompatibility between fantasy and staged drama and argues that it’s “a work by a playwright who ought, at least on this occasion, to have written a story, if he had the skill or patience for that art.”  He specifically mentions the Weird Sisters there, but he confesses in a letter to W. H. Auden that he felt “bitter disappointment and disgust from schooldays with the shabby use made in Shakespeare of the coming of ‘Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill,’” and though he never says so that I’ve found, I suspect he also felt let down by the use of the idea that “no man of woman born” could harm Macbeth.  (SPOILER: MacDuff, who was delivered by C-section, orders his men to hide in Birnam Wood and disguise themselves as trees before attacking Dunsinane.)  Thus, in The Two Towers, Tolkien shows Fangorn Forest—the trees themselves—marching on Isengard, and though it’s said that no living man can kill the Witch-king of Angmar, he meets his fate in The Return of the King at the hands of Merry and Éowyn.

1941396_657358310977295_935769098_o
The stars of BILL (L to R): Laurence Rickard, Simon Farnaby, Mathew Baynton as Bill Shakespeare, Martha Howe-Douglas as Anne Hathaway, Ben Willbond as King Philip II, Jim Howick

 

Love him or hate him, you need to know Shakespeare’s works simply because their influence on the English language and on Western culture as a whole is incalculable.  For example, no less a playwright than Friedrich Schiller adapted Macbeth for the German stage, and Hamlet and Much Ado about Nothing have even been translated into Klingon.  Cinematic and television versions abound; IMDb lists over a thousand, ranging from an 1898 short of Macbeth to Joss Whedon’s version of Much Ado, with dozens more in various stages of development and production, and that’s not counting loose adaptations like The Lion King, Kiss Me, Kate, and McLintock!  (My current favorite is the recent Royal Shakespeare Company rendition of Hamlet with David Tennant and Sir Patrick Stewart.)  And then there are commonplace phrases that originate from Shakespeare’s plays.  “To be or not to be” is obvious, of course, but “sound and fury signifying nothing,” “all the world’s a stage,” “brave new world,” and many, many more show up in everyday conversation without our even realizing where they came from.

Then there are the sonnets, a form Shakespeare made uniquely his own.  Many of these have also become commonplaces—“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments,” “That time of year thou mayest in me behold,” and more—but they’ve also served as a model for sonneteers ever since.  There’s even a Tumblr account dedicated to recasting pop songs as Shakespearean sonnets!

Not too bad for a 450-year-old “upstart crow,” eh?

* The Bill Facebook team tells me a preview should be out sometime around Christmas.

Elisabeth G. Wolfe

Elisabeth G. Wolfe, from Llano, Texas, is an alumna of the 2012 Taliesin Nexus Filmmakers Workshop. She is also a freelance translator and editor, indie historical fiction novelist, and adjunct professor of English at the Baptist College of Florida.