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< Back to question Is Shakespeare's writing universal and timeless? Show more Show less

Ben Jonson described Shakespeare as being "for all time" - that is, his works resonate with all time periods and peoples. His body of work spans poetry and plays, many of which are the most praised, quoted and performed still today. Is the work of Shakespeare truly this universal and timeless?

No, Shakespeare's writing is of his time and place. Show more Show less

Shakespeare's writing so reflects the time and place in which he wrote that it cannot be universal nor timeless.
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Shakespeare's plays are formulaic, reflecting the trends of his time

A formulaic plot structure makes Shakespeare’s plays predictable. His larger than life characters who experience emotions in the extreme are not relatable in modern times.
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The Argument

Shakespeare’s plays entered into uncharted territory by tackling issues such as classism, racism and sexism during the 17th century. Four centuries later, when analyzing the plays, one realizes that the risks taken by him in subject matter are not reflected when it comes to the style and structure of the plays. All of his plays follow the classical pattern of a drama laid down by Aristotle – a five-act play. As a result, readers and the audience are ultimately aware of the timeline of the unfolding action in the play, making it predictable. This also made the structure of his plays repetitive with time. Another flaw in Shakespeare’s writing lies in his characterization. In an attempt to showcase the vices of human life, he created characters whose actions were influenced by emotions that lay on the extreme ends of the spectrum. For example in “Othello” the characters meet their end in accordance with the volatile emotions - Desdemona dies on the account of her naivety, while Othello dies blinded by his inferiority. Far from reality, this made his characters feel less relatable, making the play more commercial than thought-provoking[1]. Shakespeare’s unoriginal plot structure and flawed characterization prevent from being pertinent to the uncertainties of the present times.

Counter arguments

Shakespeare structured his plays to be layered and complex. They could have deep meanings lying in philosophy, ethics and psychology. They could also be enjoyed by those whose sole purpose was to watch them as lighthearted entertainment, as most of the Elizabethans did. While the structure of his plots may not have been original, his plots are far from repetitive, even though it may have seemed so to certain members of the audience. He took creative liberties with pre-existing plots and transformed them into something that was exclusively his, bejeweled with elements which were outrageous and bizarre; be it the Moor and his fair Desdemona, or the shipwrecked story of the twins in Twelfth Night. His plots were intricately spun with parallels, reversed symmetries and repetitions, enough to make them analogous and distinct at the same time. As for the characters being on extreme ends of the spectrum, Shakespeare molded them so as to make them contrived with a glint of realism. This worked in several ways. It helped a larger part of the audience to identify with the different idiosyncrasies of the characters and helped them envision the consequences their vices may have. It was also a way for Shakespeare to make socio-political statements without making it apparent.

Premises

[P1] Shakespeare's plot structure is repetitive and predictable. [P2] Shakespeare's plays are not timeless because they are a reflection of the trends and standards of his time.

Rejecting the premises

[Rejecting P1] Shakspeare's plots are original even if their structure is not. [Rejecting P2] Shakepeare's plays are timeless because he used literary devices that were ahead of their time.

References

  1. http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/2267/pg2267-images.html

This page was last edited on Sunday, 21 Jun 2020 at 21:23 UTC

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