Shakespeare lived and wrote during a time we call the Early Modern Period. And yet, there is much about his time that doesn’t seem very modern at all. It’s common for students to mistakenly refer to Shakespeare’s language as “Old English” because it seems so far removed from the way we speak today. But once you get past the vocabulary and sentence structure, you realize that the language is just the tip of an iceberg representing a 400-year-old gap of knowledge, culture, and worldview.
Shakespeare was born in the same year as Galileo, but pre-deceased him by over 25 years, well before the Italian’s famous grapple with Pope Urban over the question of heliocentrism. Dying as he did in 1616, Shakespeare just barely missed the beginnings of what we consider to be modern science. Bacon’s Novum Organum, published in 1620, contained the early stirrings of the scientific method. And as the Scientific Revolution started picking up some serious steam later in the 17th century, the ideas of the world Shakespeare inhabited were already starting to seem antiquated.
A lot can happen in 400 years. Empires rise and fall, as historians rethink their judgements. Breakthroughs are made. Values shift. We still love Shakespeare because he tapped into the universal truth of human existence, sure, but that doesn’t mean we understand him fully, nor he us. Shylock’s conversion, Dromio’s beating, Katherine’s taming… they can seem harsh to us, living in a different culture and a different time. New discoveries, like the recent unearthing of the remains of Richard III, give us insight on historic people and events that Shakespeare never would have had. Just because Shakespeare’s always on our main stage, doesn’t mean we’re always on the same page.
And thus is born the Shakespeare Follow-Up. Each week (or whenever the mood strikes me), I’ll identify a passage from Shakespeare that highlights a particular gap between Shakespeare’s time and our own. Perhaps it’s a scientific statement of fact, believed to be true in Shakespeare’s time, but ridiculously outdated in ours. Maybe it’s an idea that wasn’t accepted in Shakespeare’s time, but it turned out to be remarkably prophetic. Or maybe it’s an instance where Shakespeare shows us that something we think of as wholly modern has been around longer than we think. I’ll quote the passage, and then provide a “Follow-Up” of where we are today.
This feature will probably end up to be more about cultural, historical, and scientific shifts than it is about Shakespeare. But this blog has always been approached with the philosophy that a love of Shakespeare is only the beginning of a life of examination and discovery. This feature will be another step in that journey. And I think understanding the gaps between us and Shakespeare helps us understand his works better as well. Hamlet tells Horatio that there “are more things in heaven and earth” than are dreamt of in his philosophy. And so, let it be with Shakespeare.
Sound like fun? Then, jump right in!