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What Made Shakespeare Great?
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Verbal Dexterity, Characterization, Timelessness, and Universality
Helped Make Shakespeare Shine
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2016

Why does the world regard William Shakespeare as one of the greatest playwrights in history?

First, because he was supremely gifted at selecting the right words and arranging them into convincing representations of reality in all its forms, material and immaterial. His verbal dexterity was nothing short of amazing. If Shakespeare could not find a word to fit his meaning, he invented one. Radiance, zany, lonely, laughable, eyeball, assassination, alligator, obscene, advertising, and more than  1,500 hundred other words we use today were all coined by Shakespeare.

Second, because he shaped his main characters into complex men and women who behave like living, breathing human beings with distinct behavioral patterns, vices and virtues, and strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes, he allowed mysteries about them to go unsolved, well knowing that in real life most people do not know all the secrets about their neighbors, their fellow employees, their leaders—or even themselves.

Third, because his plots and themes are timeless. The story of the ill-fated love of Romeo and Juliet is just as relevant in modern America—with its racial, ethnic, and class divisions that set family against family—as it was in Elizabethan England.

Fourth, because his plots and themes have universal appeal. Every culture has a Macbeth, a Lear, an Othello, and a Falstaff. Versions of his plays appear in virtually every language, including Tagalog, Slovene, Icelandic, Romanian, Turkish, Japanese, Chinese, Javanese, Bengali, Esperanto, Interlingua, Korean, Swahili, Estonian, and Ukrainian.

Fifth, because highly respected scholars in writing and literature have attested to the exceptionality of Shakespeare's writing. Down through the ages, important essayists, poets, dramatists, and critics have acclaimed Shakespeare as a virtuoso of unparalleled creative and technical skill. For example, Bernard D. Grebanier observed: "One might succeed in discussing individual facets of Shakespeare's unique genius, but it is utterly impossible to summarize his achievement. There is something miraculous about Shakespeare's peculiar gifts; and every sensitive reader will eventually discover the miracle for himself" (English Literature and its Backgrounds, New York: Holt, 1950, Page 242).

H.M. Burton observed that Shakespeare "is as important a figure in the history of mankind as Nelson or Lincoln, Newton or Einstein. His works have become a part of us and if they had never been written our lives and our language would have been so much the poorer" (Shakespeare and His Plays, New York: Roy Publishers, 1959, Page 1).

Harold Bloom said Shakespeare "is a system of northern lights, an aurora borealis visible where most of us will never go. Libraries and playhouses (and cinemas) cannot contain him; he has become a spirit or 'spell of light,' almost too vast to apprehend" (Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, New York: Riverhead, 1998, Page 3).

According to drama critic John Gassner, "Shakespeare is the greatest humanitarian who ever wrote for the theatre. . . .  Shakespeare's ability to create infinitely human characters stems from a pervasive love of man which no degree of pessimism in his climactic period can obliterate. He is not such an inveterate philanthropist as to spare the lash of satire, and he could strip the mask from corrupt humanity as ruthlessly as Jonathan Swift did later" (Gassner, John. Masters of the Drama. New York: Random House, 1954, Page 220).

In assessing Shakespeare’s influence on the great Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen, Rolf Fjelde wrote that "something of Shakespeare" is present in all of Ibsen's works (Fjelde, Rolf, ed. Ibsen: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1965, Page 50).

American essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson called Shakespeare "inconceivably wise." And English critic and lexicographer Samuel Johnson said Shakespeare was a master at depicting the humanity everyone shares. Johnson wrote:

Shakespeare is above all writers, at least above all modern writers, the poet of nature: the poet that holds up to his readers a faithful mirror of manners and life. His characters are not modified by the customs of particular places, unpractised by the rest of the world; by the peculiarities of studies or professions, which can operate but upon small numbers; or by the accidents of transient fashions or temporary opinions: they are the genuine progeny of common humanity, such as the world will always supply, and observation will always find. His persons act and speak by the influence of those general passions and principles by which all minds are agitated, and the whole system of life is continued in motion. In the writings of other poets a character is too often an individual; in those of Shakespeare it is commonly a species. (Quoted in Ribner, Irving. William Shakespeare: An Introduction to His Life, Times and Theatre. Waltham, Mass.: Blaisdell, 1969 (Page 200).

 
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