‘My mama don’t like you and she likes everyone,’ sings Justin Bieber in one of his recent hits, describing a slightly less complex mother son dynamic than the turbulent one depicted in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. This is just one of the reasons why recent research has found that Britain’s under-25s are more likely to recognise a lyric by Bieber than a line by Shakespeare. The results of the study, which was supposed to be in honour of Shakespeare’s death, make the gesture feel a bit like passing a birthday card around the office only for everyone to write down that they don’t really like you anymore; but the fact is, even if we don’t quite know it, Shakespeare’s presence is still very much felt four hundred years after his death.
For most of us, our first – and perhaps only – encounter with Shakespeare comes at school, and is not always welcomed. In a recent comedy documentary, ‘Cunk on Shakespeare’, a fictitious journalist-come-presenter, Cunk, declares: ‘School in Shakespeare’s day and age was far easier, because they didn’t have to study Shakespeare.’ But even if this is our only direct encounter with The Bard, we invariably go on to experience much more of his work and his influence through translations and adaptions, even if we are not always aware of it.
The Lion King is directly based on Hamlet. In both stories a young prince’s father is killed by his uncle, and the prince is forced into exile, is visited by his fathers ghost, and returns to the kingdom to avenge his father’s death and rightfully take the throne. Disney’s version remains close to Shakespeare’s original in many ways, though with fewer death and more cute animals.
Other examples include how Henry IV part I and II and Henry V help set the tone for Star Wars, as they depict maturing protagonists becoming a leader by having to defeat darker versions of themselves along the way, just like Luke Skywalker. The character of Frank Underwood in House of Cards, with his monologues directly into the camera, is reminiscent of Richard III. Kevin Spacey once played Richard III on Broadway, so the resemblance may well be a conscious one.
Nowadays this is how many of us loosely experience the work of Shakespeare, and although direct interaction with his work may not be as prominent as it once was, the importance of it has never been questioned. Experts have suggested that King Lear gives a medically accurate representation of madness; Nelson Mandela, who kept a complete work of Shakespeare during his twenty years in prison, said ‘Shakespeare always seems to have something to say to us’; and statistically he is the writer most quoted by lawyers in court. Likewise, although the last year has seen an increase in the prominence of Shakespeare in modern society due to this anniversary, the number of tickets sold for the Globe’s productions (368,000 in 2014 alone) serve as proof that Shakespeare’s plays remain big business in certain circles, and are far from a novelty.
Just as the fact that it is 400 years since he lived hasn’t diminished his role in England, it has also allowed his fame and influence to become a worldwide phenomenon: his statue stands in New York’s central park, and he is integral to American culture. It is the greatest mark of his genius that four centuries on he still has so much to offer people. Benedict Cumberbatch, an international acting star at the height of his fame, dedicated a large part of last year performing on stage as Hamlet, showing that Shakespeare still has much to offer actors too, for whom his work remains mainstream, and for many, a necessity for a successful career’s CV.
Shakespeare is, and will continue to be, one of the greatest geniuses of all time, so if some of his work continues to be hard for us to understand, perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves; it won’t stop the fact that this same genius, like his stories, his characters and his legacy, will remain all around us.