Why does Shakespeare matter?

Saturday 17 October, 12.00 until 13.00, Free Stage, Barbican Contemporary Controversies

‘After God,’ wrote Alexander Dumas, ‘Shakespeare has created most.’ From the perspective of 2015, many would argue the Bard has surpassed even that. The Barbican’s Hamlet is possibly the most anticipated and popular cultural event of the year, and while there has been some help from Benedict Cumberbatch, he is definitely not the sole reason for the excitement. Recent years have also seen successful adaptations of Coriolanus and the history plays for the BBC’s The Hollow Crown series. The Globe and RSC continue to thrive against a challenging climate for the arts; during the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, even foreign language versions of Shakespeare’s oeuvre proved hugely popular. From Kurosawa and Baz Luhrman through to graphic novels and rap battles, England’s greatest writer remains a central cornerstone of contemporary Western and even global culture.

Yet while Shakespeare’s universalism has seemingly withstood various critical attacks on the Eurocentric canon, his supremacy still sits uneasily in our cultural firmament. Each age produces its own version of Shakespeare: while the text endures, Orson Welles’ filmic turn as Othello provokes unease in today’s more sensitive times. Many scholars lament a general decline in our common appreciation of Shakespearean language and complex characterisation, even if the stories survive; some argue that modern language productions are not Shakespeare at all. Meanwhile, an ongoing fascination with the ‘real’ identity of the author(s) seems to speak to an unease with the towering genius of the artist. Others bemoan the thought that the ‘cult of Shakespeare’ has led to an unfair dismissal of equally important, non-English speaking figures, from Moliere to Pushkin.

Why does Shakespeare still matter today? Is his status simply a matter of cultural and historical convenience as the favoured dramatist of the nascent Age of Empire? Why has his work proven culturally transcendent in a way contemporaries and successors of similar ability have not? What should be considered essential in his work, and what is only for experts or scholars? Does it matter if audiences today choose to access his tales through media other than the text itself? Is Shakespeare simply the greatest dramatist who has ever lived?

Michael Caines
assistant editor, Times Literary Supplement

Tracy Irish
Warwick Business School Shakespeare Scholar; author, The Shorter Shakespeare

Kate Maltby
theatre critic, The Times; associate fellow, Bright Blue; researcher on intellectual life of Elizabeth I

Dr Vanessa Pupavac
associate professor; co-director of the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice, University of Nottingham

Kiernan Ryan
professor of English language and literature, Royal Holloway, University of London; author, Shakespeare’s Universality: here’s fine revolution

David Bowden
associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; culture writer

Produced by
David Bowden associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; culture writer
Recommended readings
Why do we still care about Shakespeare?

What is it about a long-dead poet and playwright that makes him such an important element of contemporary culture?

Cindy Tumiel, Ovations

Shakespeare's Universality: here's fine revolution

Kiernan Ryan's compelling polemic sets out to reclaim the idea of Shakespeare's timeless universality from reactionary and radical critics alike.

Kiernan Ryan, Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 23 April 2015

How Shakespeare influences the way we speak now

Even if you’ve never seen a Shakespeare play, you’ll have used one of his words or phrases. Hephzibah Anderson explains his genius – and enduring influence.

Hephzibah Anderson, BBC, 21 October 2014

Why Shakespeare?

Essentially the creative arts epitomise our humanity as individual beings with the capacity to imagine and create a human world beyond biological determinism.

Vanessa Pupavac, School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham, 15 November 2013

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