In the modern era, many people are opposed to studying Shakespeare despite the excellent quality and cultural importance of his plays.
This past weekend, I saw IU Theatre’s production of "Julius Caesar" and absolutely loved it. It’s one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, a tragedy with compelling characters and many memorable quotes.
The performances were superb and I left feeling extremely satisfied, save for one thing. Many of my friends from my theater class and fellow audience members complained the play was boring, or even left at intermission, despite the excellent quality of the performance. Most students don’t care about Shakespeare, despite the deep cultural resonance of his works that holds up even today.
The piece is a satire about a high school freshman stating Romeo and Juliet is her favorite play because of its romantic elements. It’s extremely common to criticize the play by saying it is not actually romantic for a multitude of reasons including the young age of the couple, the miscommunication or the sheer drama of it all. These critiques are stale and overused.
To begin with, "Romeo and Juliet" was written in 1597, which accounts for the young age of the main characters. It is impossible to compare Elizabethan relationships to today’s standards when their entire society was structured differently. The argument that the play itself is not romantic at all is completely ridiculous. “Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight, for I ne'er saw true beauty till this night.”
Above all else, the play is a story about two young people in love in a society that would not let them be. Calling it a bad love story is completely missing the point, as it is supposed to be a tragedy.
As far as "Julius Caesar" goes, it speaks to the politics of today in a way many modern plays cannot. Just this past summer, the Public Theater in New York City was subject to outrage over a production depicting President Trump as Caesar. This was not the first time this has happened. "Julius Caesar" has been interpreted through many instances of political conflict.
The underlying message of the play is one of fighting for democracy, even through wildly undemocratic means. Stephen Greenblatt, a Shakespearean scholar, said to the New York Times, “I think the general drift of it is: be careful, you might get what you want.”
It can be argued Shakespeare explicitly meant for this play to be interpreted well into the future in many different political climates. It explicitly portrays a specific historic event, but implies it can be relatable to any political moment. The play was written during an era of political plots in Elizabethan England.
Cassius famously states, “How many ages hence / Shall this our lofty scene be acted over / In states unborn and accents yet unknown!”
Shakespeare is an important foundation of all facets of literary study. That being said, it’s also important to study works that are modern and diverse instead of just focusing on dead white males. This is a popular justification for avoiding Shakespeare. That, and that people find it boring.
The fact that people find it boring is unfortunately unavoidable, although most of his plays are absolutely anything but boring. The other issues students and professors have with Shakespeare can be further analyzed.
In studying the foundations of literature, it is difficult to avoid all of the dead white men, so if there is one to keep studying to understand the foundation of all modern literature and theatre, it should be Shakespeare. It is amazing and admirable that IU Theatre uses its immense talent to keep his plays alive and interpret them to the modern era.
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