The Relevance of Shakespeare in the Modern Age

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

The Relevance of Shakespeare in the Modern Age. Throughout the years, many have shrugged off the fact that the work of William Shakespeare holds no lasting relevance in the modern world today. This essay will explore this -- eventually detailing WHY he IS relevant and how he has had a lasting impact on the world and how we see it.



There has been much talk into the work of English, Elizabethan playwright, William Shakespeare (1564-1616). A man, whose name has become internationally known throughout four centuries since his birth. A prolific writer, whose works have varied from comedy, tragedy, to even the historical, but do they still engage audiences in the modern age? Many people have tried to analyse the work of William Shakespeare through the years in terms of his relevance. Many will even argue that because the world that is much more different from how it was back in Elizabethan England, that there is no holding reason as why he is still being performed, taught and indeed referenced almost every single day. It is evident that throughout the years since his death, people are continuously trying to contemporise Shakespeare’s work, fitting to their own time and image. This is still the case in the 21st century. Shakespeare wrote for the stage and specifically to an Elizabethan-styled audience. People who were far more different in terms of standards than how they are today. It will then be that this paper will investigate how the works of Shakespeare have managed to stay relevant to the modern-day, as well as why they are so popular to theatre goers across the generations. This paper will cover the enduring nature of his themes and language.


It will also explore a recent, up-to-date adaptation of one of his most beloved and famed plays, Romeo and Juliet, in which will be discussed in fine detail when it was played out earlier in March this year at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds. With that in mind, it will also delve into what makes Shakespeare tick, examining his way of drawing an audience into his plays and how an everlasting impact of his characters has had a profound effect of society and the way people lead their lives today. That said, along with the modern perspective, a diagnosis will also look into the historical element, how these plays were originally set out and produced back in Elizabethan England. As well as going into much finer detail with his emotional grasp of things, it will explore how Shakespeare delves into the human psyche.


There is a struggle, in this day and age, to get modern-day audiences connected with any type of classical text, let alone the works of William Shakespeare. These are the people, it is assumed, who feel they haven’t time to sit for long period of time, watching a bunch of actors, talking in a way in which is no longer used today. Being originally written over 400 years ago, most will argue this work no-longer holds any genuine significance in the modern world. It has become uncharted territory – not daring to go near it, appearing dated and old-fashioned. The section which follows will examine this, exploring and delving into the facts as to the everlasting effect of Shakespeare is still thought as relevant today, as he was over four-centuries ago.




The section which follows will be an insight into how the world of William Shakespeare has been most adapted, depicted and sought through, over the many years since originally written four-hundred years ago. An examination will therefore take place into one of the Bard’s most famous of plays; Romeo & Juliet; as well as considering a recent, up-to-date adaptation of the famed play, (2017) performed earlier in March this year, at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds.


Inspired on the 1562 poem, The Tragical Historye of Romeus And Juliet, by Arthur Brooke, Shakespeare penned his version of the story, roughly around 1591-1595; noted as one of his earliest works (Foley & Coates, 2014, pg.189). Since originally being written, it has become renowned as one of his most famous of tragedies. Centring two antagonists; teenagers, Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet, whom fall desperately in love the moment they meet. Theirs is a forbidden love, unaware to either of them, that both families have ‘brawl’ against the other, being at bitter feuds for many years. Despite all of this, Romeo and Juliet are married, keeping their kindship a secret. However, things become savage, as the war between the families collide, resulting in two deaths from each. Romeo finds himself banished for murder and Juliet is now forced to marry, according to her father’s demands. Unaccepting of this, all ends unnervingly when Juliet drinks a sleeping poison (causing her to show a death-like state) in a hope of being reunited with Romeo when she awakes. This goes badly when Romeo hears of her rumoured death, he escapes to buy poison to be reunited with her in heaven. All of this is quite messy and there is more cause for death, including Paris, whom Juliet was set to marry with when he tries to confront Romeo when he arrives for Juliet. However, once all the action has ended and Juliet finally awakes, she despairs to the fact that her young love, Romeo, lies dead by her side. Uncontrollably frantic with all of this, she prepares to destroy her own life, ending with her by drawing a dagger from the two makes, marking her painful end.  As a result, the two warring families agree to settle their feud and ‘make up their quarrel’ (2014, pg. 190) in the hope that this will never happen again, thus opening their eyes, dedicating statues in their honour.

Within the play, there are several significant themes throughout. The main one, love and how it can switch the family dynamic, bringing the ‘romance to tragedy’ (2014, pg. 188) into orbit. Though this never stopped the two young lovers falling head-over-heels, ‘despite their differences,’ (2014, pg. 189) it is through this that Shakespeare’s uses his unique skill of rich, vibrant language, which then proceeds to escape into the imagination of readers and spectators alike. But why is it, like a lot of his plays, still produced, even by today’s standards? Why this play? Well, the whole prospect of the themes of love, war, family, all reign true to all people, paying no attention to what era they were originally conceived. People nowadays can relate to the reality of this, the truth to which Shakespeare speaks in his language. This is what makes him brilliant as a story teller, getting you to care and long for the characters taking you on a journey with them, until the end of their demise.

When it comes to performing the subject matter for a modern-day perspective, Amy, (Leach, 2017) (an associate director at the West Yorkshire Playhouse) found out for herself when she proposed the idea of a re-imagining of the play, set for March earlier of 2017. For the actor’s conveying the actions, John Barton (1997) mentions, in his book on Playing Shakespeare that:

‘[T]he main problem in playing Shakespeare is how to marry the Elizabethan text and acting tradition with our modern acting tradition.’

‘I’ve loved the story since I was very small,’ she mentions, having once seen an adaptation of the play at the playhouse back in the 1990’s. She then goes on to mention why her thoughts about that stage version made her want to direct her own adaptation. These thoughts are then placed into today’s world content, leading off from the 2016 Brexit vote back in June last year, to the divide in opinion between the older and younger generations. ‘This past year there have been so many events in the news that ignited the thought that this is the perfect story for now.’ As well as this, her thoughts relate to that of Yorkshire and the ‘Leeds festival, which thousands of teenagers go as a rite of passage…’ (Leach, 2017). This ties in with the play of Romeo and Juliet, to which there is a generation split between the older generations, Montague/Capulet and younger generations, Romeo and Juliet. Having the parent’s hold down that ‘rite of passage,’ results in the lover’s love affair, all the way down to their eventual demise. It is as though, as Amy says, the ‘wiping out of the generation above them.’

It is obvious that the action takes place abroad, though going back to Amy’s vision of how she wanted people to see it, she goes on, saying: ‘Those reasons not only to stage the play now, but to set it now too, in a city that could be Leeds.’ This can be said that it can be placed into an environment for anyone and everyone, no-matter where about in the world you may be. This fact is that this adaptation is ‘set in the world now’ and fits in with what has been discussed. Shakespeare has such a use with words and with language, that he has a way of transporting you to a different world with his use of metaphor of poetic verse. Take, for instance the way Romeo speaks of Juliet (Shakespeare, 1909, II.2:26,27,28):

‘O, speak again, bright angel! For thou art As glorious to this night, being o’er my head,

As a winged messenger of heaven’

Shakespeare is demonstrating his brilliance here, enriching you with how the character speaks, taking him out of context and making you interact, as if he is getting you involved with the story. Oskar Eustis, (2016) one of the chief directors of the New York Shakespeare in the Park speaks out about this. He mentions that: ‘it is a fundamental human drive – need to feel that you are part of a story.’ With that, he is saying that everyone who is watching these characters on stage, can relate to them somehow. He goes on to say that if you ‘put yourself into an identifiable position’ with them, as if you want to stand by them in their moment of pain and suffering. Here, Shakespeare has the capability to create ‘extraordinary imagery’ (2014, pg. 191) for the audience’s perspective, in a result of considering that of Romeo and Juliet’s story, and how the reality of human frailty can be really seen.




It is likely that Shakespeare might not be everybody’s cup-of-tea, but that is not to say that he has no significance in the modern world. Considering that these plays were written over 400 years ago, they have still managed to stand the test of time. If you think back to the 16th and 17th centuries, when these plays were originally being produced, things would have worked so differently from how they are today. Take for example how the plays would have been originally written. In the 1500s, when a playwright wanted to put on a play, that person would have had to present an overall plot structure (RSC, 2017) to both a company of actors and the theatre manager. If the idea was agreed upon there would have been a down-payment issued, asking for the completed manuscript. This can still be said for what is more commonly referred to as a standard story outline, so you have an idea of content and whether it is worthy. Writers often present a layout such as this, briefing the person in charge as to what will happen. Once established, the overall writing process would commence. Back then, the English theatre was ‘directly under the control of the Government’ (Swinglehurst, 2002, pg. 127,) so you had to be able to abide by their ground rules, seeing as though they were the ones you were hoping to impress. Once commissioned, a company of actors were each assigned their roles. This will have also been the procedure during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, (Crystal, 2008, pg. 64) where Shakespeare and acting troupe, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, had specified actors in mind to fit each role.


Presenting scripts worked differently from how they are today. If you were to put on a play today, all actors have the whole script; not just including their lines, but everybody else’s as well. If you were a professional Elizabethan actor back in the day and performed on the stage, you had the entirety of your lines handed to you on a scroll parchment (RSC, 2017) to learn, until off-book. This would include your cue of the last actor’s line beforehand, (Shakespeare, Raffel, 2003) so you knew where you came next. No other lines were there, just your own; as it was for the other actors. It was with this that nobody really knew who were on stage with them, except what their scenario was. It also did not contain stage directions. That came later during rehearsals and even then, that was to organise the entrance and exits.


In those days, theatre (especially Shakespeare’s Globe) in London, would attract tens-of-thousands of people whenever a play was on. Swinglehurst (2002, pg.126) says that it ‘attracted large crowds from all walks of life,’ bringing lots of attention and money to the theatre. It also caused universal acclaim, as these plays lasted over three-to-four hours per-performance; it was what people of the day expected, as they had so far to travel. Nowadays, people’s attention span has decreased so low, that many cannot sit for long periods of time. This meaning that plays have become much shorter in length as time has moved on.




It is inevitable that Shakespeare has connected with generations around the world, explaining various themes throughout life, which many people can relate to. The thing to which he excels in is tapping into the human conciseness, showing us what it means to be human. It is the foundation of his characters (Price, 2009) and what they go through that are designed to emulate the real world. These creations are fictitious, but only this is what separates them from reality, is the circumstances to which they face. It seems strange, but his work has had an everlasting effect on how the world now is perceived. In the article by Michelle Boston (2016), she quotes Professor Bruce Smith, saying that: ‘Shakespeare revels a different face to different cultures and different people at different times’. Not so different if you think about it. These plays were and still are for all generations alike; both young and old, from wherever you may come from. It is difficult to grasp, (Boston, 2016) but it is astonishing how the influence of his writing has had a profound effect on how everything is depicted. Along with all of this, he even contributed to the English language, coming up with phrases such as: ‘green-ey’d monster,’ (Shakespeare, 1966, III.3.170) thus provoking jealousy; as well as, ‘Seen better days;’ (Shakespeare, 2011, II.7.120), referring to the fact that something is no longer good for use.


Having that connection is paramount to the capability of the writer discussing it. As a species, it is identifiable to get so involved with the writing, that it is difficult to imagine these are only figments of the dramatist’s imagination. Delving further into this realm, the actor and comedian, Lenny Henry (National Theatre, 2015, pg. 49) had this to say of the playwright: ‘These stories were for everyone, they featured universal themes…’ He goes on to say, ‘Shakespeare is for all of us,’ showing that they are not just for one person’s culture, but for everyone. All characters, as well as language, you will see, take on a life of their own, (Bate, 2014) and never seem to have ‘fallen out of fashion’ with everything that has come to be.


These are not just works of genius, becoming tapped into the human consciousness. Boston (2016) taps into this as she embarks on how he is ‘masterful with making his audience and readers alike to identify…,’ thus making them care in relation to them. He has a way of drawing you in, making you identify with every single one of them and not the circumstances they have been thrown into, but the initial reactions of how they go about facing it. (McCrum, 2016) remarks on how ‘He always has something to say,’ and that they because they were written over 400 years previously, they have stood the test of time, being ‘Not for a specific age but for all time.’  This is the genius of Shakespeare and what he is capable of. He knows what the human condition is all about, amongst being a very skilful and gifted writer/playwright. It is evident that for his time, (Price, 2009) he was writing the equivalent of ‘modern English,’ to fit into the dramatic purpose of the Theatre. The only reasoning as to why a lot of people are not more in touch with the language is, that back then, was how the average person spoke; it has merely changed throughout the past four-centuries. The language, however, remains crisp and everlastingly poetic.




This essay has shown how people have found new ways to interpret and adapt Shakespeare throughout the many years since he was originally established. This has been possible because of the themes in his work, the ones that endure in the human experience and what it is like to relate with these fine and rich creations. This essay has explored how Shakespeare taps into human emotions, examining and exploring the use of character, making them as real as possible, especially looking at how the need for something, the drive of lust, power, and deception can spark anything. These are inventions to lure and attract the spectators, letting you have a moment of Shakespeare’s, teaching you the very aspects of what it is to be alive.

It is about holding a genuine human connection, examining what life is all about. This is what William Shakespeare is good at, exceeding in all expectations. He wants you to care for, hate and think about the characters on stage. These are creations, drawn from real-life, so people of all generations will be able to recognise them, as they will be sure to encounter through their lives. What he does, from then on, is to grasp hold of you, from the moment you take your seat, and keeps you holding on. This makes you identify with these people and it’s these adaptations that have made Shakespeare relevant throughout the ages. New adaptations have breathed new life into classical text, from four centuries ago. This essay has covered the theatre productions, especially relating to cities, being Leeds, as director, Amy Leach planned to create.


After the in depth thinking of this essay has allowed an insight into these productions, as well as how the plays are supposed to be produced and were always meant to be. They were meant for the theatre, to be performed live – as that what Shakespeare was – a playwright, whose plays were there to be watched and enjoyed. They were never created to be just read or studied in gloomy classrooms. The whole aspect of Shakespeare’s genius is that he has tapped into human emotions, knowing what people are like, thus having the power to create many characters with the same characteristics as all of us. It is this satisfying aspect of things which continues to draw in public crowds, of all ages to and beyond the theatre. Shakespeare meant his plays to be for entertainment – to show a glimpse into human life.


This essay has only scratched the surface of some of the reasons for the appeal and genius of Shakespeare. His portrayal of human emotions, the language he used, his contribution to the literary and wider world, through his language and rhyme. This is the reason why more and more of his plays are being produced, not just in Britain, but across the continent, through Europe and in the Far East and the whole world. They seem to have no age or culture limit to them.





Director Amy Leach talks to Stuart Leeks about her new production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.


STUART LEEKS: There couldn’t be a more apt play to be doing at a time when there is so much bitter polarization in the world – with each side not only not understanding but apparently not wanting to understand the other’s perspective. Was that at least part of the reason why you wanted to do the play now?


AMY LEACH: Every day it seems more and more apt doesn’t it? I’ve loved the story since I was very small. The first time I came across it was when I was three and watched the ballet on television. I was in the play as a teenager, and it was the first thing I ever saw here at the Playhouse, as a 14-year-old. So it’s a story I’ve always loved, but this past year there have been so many events in the news that ignited the thought that this is the perfect story for now. I was thinking of the last speech of the play the morning after the Brexit vote: “A glooming peace this morning with it brings …”, which seemed to me perfect words to describe the mood of our nation, regardless of which side you were on. There were other events too: the murder of Jo Cox [the Labour MP, in Birstall last June] and the vigils that took place in response to that; the Orlando shootings [at a gay nightclub earlier the same month]; and other things, like the fact that this city hosts the Leeds Festival, which thousands of teenagers go to as a rite of passage where they go wild in the heat of summer in all that post-exam craziness.


In the play there is an ancient feud – it’s been going on forever, but recently there have been three civil brawls and it’s all flared up again. And that’s exactly what’s happening in the world right now: suddenly all this hate that has obviously been bubbling away beneath the surface, and which liberal-minded people might have assumed had disappeared, has erupted again. It’s also a play about generational conflict, and it’s clear that many young people in this country voted very differently last June from the older generation – not entirely of course, but it was heavily weighted that way. Those were all reasons not only to stage the play now, but to set it now too, in a city that could be Leeds. That’s not to say that it is set in Leeds – that would be too reductionist. But we have set the play in the world now.


SL: Division between the generations is very prominent in the play isn’t it? Obviously there is division between the two families, the Montagues and the Capulets, but there are divisions within those families as well. How do you see that generational dynamic playing out?


AL: The overall structure of the generations in our version is that the older generation consists of Montague [Romeo’s father], Capulet [Juliet’s father], the Prince, the Nurse, and the Friar – who in our version becomes the Reverend because she’s female, so we’ve changed her religion to Church of England. Then there is the Tybalt/Mercutio/Romeo/Benvolio generation, who are all about 18 to 20. Then there is a massive young company in the production, and they’re all school-leavers, so about 16 or so, and Juliet is also about their age. The young company are the people who witness the wiping out of the generation just above them. Of that generation only Benvolio is left alive at the end of the play. Will the young generation be influenced by what they’ve witnessed and continue the cycle of violence? Or will they join together to break the cycle, and bring hope for the future?


SL: Lady Capulet is an interesting character in that respect isn’t she? She gave birth to Juliet at about the age Juliet is in the play, which would make her about 28 or 29 – much younger than her husband. Perhaps hers was an ‘arranged’ marriage much as Juliet’s to Paris is meant to be. Given all of this, wouldn’t you expect her to be more sympathetic to her daughter?


AL: There is a certain way of treating women – as male possessions – that is passed on generation to generation in the play. There is a scene in which Lady Capulet is trying to persuade Juliet into marrying Paris where she tells her that she will be the cover to his book – that’s how a woman gets on in this world. She herself married Capulet because he brought her money, status, protection. What happened to Lady Capulet then is echoed in what’s happening to Juliet now in the play. In our production Paris is in his late 20s, so really he should be marrying Lady Capulet – they’re of the same generation. But of course Juliet doesn’t want to be the cover to anybody’s book. She doesn’t want to do things the way her mother did. I don’t think that Lady Capulet is being deliberately cruel to her daughter; she’s just learnt that this is the way that women survive in this society.


SL: You mentioned that you have a female Friar Laurence, now the Reverend. You also have a female Mercutio don’t you?


AL: Yes, which creates an interesting dynamic: who is this girl within this male group, fighting with the boys? She’s fierce, she’s hard, she’ll take on anybody regardless of whether they are male or female, and she doesn’t believe in romantic love, which is why Romeo can’t talk to her about it.


SL: Romeo has a wonderful phrase in the last act of the play: “A lightning before death”. Given the speed at which events unfold, it could be the subtitle of the play. Shakespeare has mapped out the time-scheme of the play very precisely: it begins on Sunday morning and ends in the early hours of the following Thursday. Has this sense of compressed time influenced your pacing of the play?


AL: It’s totally key. We’ve got to hit the ground running, which is why we’ve cut the dispute between the servants in the first scene. We tell the Prologue and then all hell breaks loose; rioting spreads like wildfire through the city. Everybody should be hot, hurt and exhausted at the end of the first scene. Time of year is key to the play – the story couldn’t take place in winter. It’s the height of summer, so it’s hot hot hot. The design of the production is quite simple, but we’ve got a sun that’s almost four metres wide built out of 100 PAR cans arranged in concentric circles. So it will be physically hot, and not only on stage – the first four rows of the audience will probably feel quite sweaty – I hope! It will certainly make the actors sweat because there will be all these lights burning them up. Time of day is also really important to the story-telling – the midday sun, the dusk, the dawn.


SL: What were you looking for in your Romeo and Juliet when you were casting those roles? I  suppose one thing you have to deal with is the ‘Juliet problem’: she supposed to be about 14, but clearly it would be an extraordinary 14-year-old who could encompass the part.


AL: It’s really important that the actors playing Romeo and Juliet are convincing teenagers. Dan [Romeo] and Tessa [Juliet] are in their 20s, but both have an innocence and playfulness about them. What we’ve done is to remove all mention of Juliet’s age from the play entirely, because it becomes problematic when we’re setting the play now. Even if we’d made her 16 rather than 14 she would still be not quite 16 when she and Romeo are married, which would make Romeo a paedophile in this day and age. So we’ve been unspecific about Juliet’s age. But I don’t think the play works unless Romeo and Juliet are teenagers. Romeo, Tybalt, Benvolio – none of them have yet learnt to put the brakes on.


Dan is an actor I have worked with twice before – he played Billy Casper when we did Kes here last year. From the early thinking about this project he was always the person I could imagine playing Romeo. I say that because Romeo can sometimes seem a bit wet, and one thing Dan isn’t is wet. He has a roughness and a charm about him, but he’s also totally believable as somebody quite innocent. And then we went about finding someone who could embody both Juliet’s innocence and her wisdom beyond her years, and who would have the right chemistry with Dan. Juliet has a complexity of thought that it’s really hard for an actress to convey, and what Tessa can do is to play many thoughts – sometimes conflicting thoughts – simultaneously.


SL: It’s Juliet’s play in the end isn’t it?


AL: She is one of the best parts ever written for a woman. Somehow Shakespeare manages to encapsulate a teenage girl in Juliet. Of course he totally encapsulates teenage boys as well – the heaviness of the hormones, the lust, the fighting – all that stuff. But even now we don’t really write plays that explore the fact that teenage girls want to have sex, want to feel these huge emotions, don’t just want to be the good girl. That’s what Juliet goes through. But both Romeo and Juliet are transformed by their love for one another. They have to be brave as well as vulnerable and Dan and Tessa are cut from the same cloth – they’re both fearless actors. And that goes for the whole of our cast, including the young company.




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McCrum, R. (2016) Ten ways in which Shakespeare changed the world. Available at: (Accessed: 10 March 2017).


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Submitted: May 18, 2017

© Copyright 2021 Robert Price. All rights reserved.

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