How Shakespeare has influenced the foundations of modern literature

On the 400th anniversary of his death, millions around the world have shown their undying appreciation of William Shakespeare and his work. Across the globe, his timeless classics have illuminated our screens, filled our theatres, and enlightened our classrooms, prisons, festivals and stadiums in almost every language.

“He was not of an age, but for all time!”

Ben Jonson certainly wasn’t wrong there! Shakespeare’s voice remains prominent across all aspects of Western culture, continuing to endure the cruel test of time that has flattened so many others before and after him.

Yet, in the far distance, drowned in an overflowing pile of compulsory reading, I can hear the GCSE students of the past and present cry with agony and frustration. 


What could this long-dead, overly fancy, ‘olde’ English poet possibly have done that is so groundbreaking, so spectacular, and so significant, that makes him still relevant in the 21st century?

So, why should we care?

We all know the Hollywood remakes and renditions of Shakespeare’s plays… Generation heartthrob Leo DiCaprio had us all swooning in Baz Luhrmann’s modern remake in 1996. And, much to the dismay of our GCSE students, Shakespeare’s plays are performed 24/7 at major theatres around the world, making it inevitable that one will become available for a school trip!

But you might be surprised to know that…

The Lion King

Cute little film about lions and hyenas right?

The Lion King Disney animated film

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Hate to burst your bubble, but it’s based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

In short, the great king is killed “inadvertently” by his evil brother, and after some time away from the kingdom, the rightful heir to the throne returns to bring the truth to light and reclaim power… Sound familiar?

The film even includes the ghostly vision of the king, and the prince’s pair of fast-talking friends, Timon and Pumba (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the original). 

She’s The Man

American rom-com starring Amanda Byrnes and Channing Tatum, about a girl who wants to play football. Right?

She's The Man cover photo starring Amanda Byrnes and Channing Tatum 2006

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Based on Twelfth Night, it stays remarkably close to the original tale and I think you have to admit, it is delightfully entertaining.

How could this possibly be associated with the older poet, you ask?

Well, without becoming your loathed GCSE English teacher and boring you with an in-depth plot synopsis, both are romantic comedies revolving around the mistaken identities of Viola and her twin brother. Viola, disguised as her brother, falls in love with Duke (Duke Orsino in Twelfth Night) and has to suffer watching him woo Olivia… The similarities are uncanny, with the subplot of Malcolm even featuring in the 2006 adaptation!

Plenty more where those came from

One final example is 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), which was adapted from The Taming of the Shrew. Not quite the chick-flick you had in mind then, huh?

So, next time you’re in bed with your favourite tub of Ben and Jerry’s, chuckling away at a Hollywood rom-com … think about our beloved Shakespeare and his incredible knack for telling stories that are still funny to us Millenials some 400 years later!

Themes and characters 

Well, rom-coms aren’t the only things that have been influenced by Shakespeare. In fact, one of the main reasons our culture has been so stimulated by him is due to his deep, analytical explorations of raw emotion.

Shakespeare recognised matters of love, loss, betrayal, tragedy and humour that were way before his time. The psychological studies of his characters are so well thought out that they transcend time and culture…

Even in prisons (perhaps the most unlikely place for Shakespeare fanatics!) people are able to relate to Shakespeare’s themes and characters.

Prison fence in black and white

Image: Pixabay

As quoted from the SPN (Shakespeare in Prisons) website:

“The SPN celebrates the transformative power of William Shakespeare’s works in bridging the space between our shared humanity and the isolation typical of incarcerated and marginalised individuals”.

Many of his plays and characters revolve around aspects that are fundamental to the human condition – we haven’t changed much in 400 years! Such a revolutionary understanding of our psychology is still admired in the 21st century.

The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, for example, revolves around murder, political treachery and justice. Hamlet, a tale of a man forced to seek murderous revenge against his better nature. The list goes on… Macbeth, King Lear, Romeo, Juliet… we can see ourselves in all of Shakespeare’s characters and can sympathise with their irrational and instinctual desires.

Pen and paper, writing ink

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Shakespeare was able to evolve his characters around scenarios that explore what makes us, as humans, act and think in the ways that we do. Unsurprisingly, this makes it almost impossible NOT to relate to them.

Shakespeare’s plays continue to open our eyes 

And yet, the bad-tempered GCSE students are still stomping up and down in true Catherine Tate style… “I’m Not Bovvered”…

“Shakespeare is just so damn difficult – the language is archaic and dense and it takes a copious amount of time and effort to understand the bloody thing!”

Well, my dear friends, you may be surprised to hear that you are using Shakespeare’s language on a daily basis. He is notorious for inventing over 1,700 words! 

Never used these words, you cry? A few examples of these would be… “dawn”, “exposure”, “amazement”, “premeditated”, “dexterously”, and ”lacklustre”. That’s pretty impressive, right? Few modern writers have such skill as to create new words or to write in such a way that they become common usage centuries later!

Bernard Levin says it brilliantly in this quote:

“… If you act more in sorrow than in anger, if your wish is father to the thought, if your lost property has vanished into thin air, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you have ever refused to budge an inch or suffered from green-eyed jealousy, if you have played fast and loose, if you have been tongue-tied, a tower of strength, hoodwinked or in a pickle, if you have knitted your brows, made a virtue of necessity, insisted on fair play, slept not one wink, stood on ceremony, danced attendance (on your lord and master), laughed yourself into stitches, had short shrift, cold comfort or too much of a good thing, if you have seen better days or lived in a fool’s paradise – why, be that as it may, the more fool you, for it is a foregone conclusion that you are (as good luck would have it) quoting Shakespeare.”

 (The Story of English, 145)

The reality is, Shakespeare moulded the English language to such an extent that his creations have revolutionised the society and culture we live in today.

No other writer has surpassed him

William Shakespeare is undoubtedly the greatest dramatist, the greatest poet and the greatest writer in the history of the English language.