Coming of Age with the Bard
400 Reasons to Celebrate, one teenager at a time
As Chicago lights birthday candles, sets off fireworks, and joins the the world in celebrating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s legacy, Chicago Youth Shakespeare would like to offer up its own list of 400 (and more) reasons to celebrate the Immortal Bard. Sounds ambitious? Not really, when you consider Shakespeare’s unparalleled impact on the English Language and the way we communicate 400 years later. What’s in a name, you might ask? Actually, a lot.
So let’s start off with Reason #1: the NFL Draft, which kicks off (no pun intended) next Thursday right here in Chicago, and which literally would not exist as we know it without Shakespeare. That’s right, the National Football League owes its name to, (you guessed it), Shakespeare — who introduced the word “football” in his very first play, The Comedy of Errors, (1589), (also CYS’s upcoming summer production — shameless plug). Can you imagine a world without football? My husband and 16-year-old son shudder at the thought.
Which brings me to Reason #2: the Swag Rap movement, and the countless artists including Lil Wayne, Soulja Boy, Kanye West, and Jay Z, who owe their “swagger” to Shakespeare, who first used the term in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, (1596).
And where do teenagers go to seek refuge from their parents, spending countless hours behind closed doors listening to swag rap and posting their snap-chat stories? Thanks to Shakespeare, it’s called a “bedroom” — (Reason #3).
Or, consider for a moment the economic impact of a world without Shakespeare:
According to an analysis by IHS Global Insight, Inc., the industry we know as “advertising” (Reason #4), first introduced in Measure for Measure, (1604) will account for $6.5 trillion in output and more than 15% of the jobs in the US by 2017. Even reality TV (Reason #5) owes Shakespeare a huge debt of gratitude, as do the millions of viewers who tune in to watch TLC every Wednesday night for their favorite guilty pleasure, My Strange “Addiction” (a term first introduced in Henry V, 1598).
Reason #6: Sir Edmund Hilary, the world-famous “mountaineer” (Cymbeline, 1609) who, along with his sherpa, Tenzing Norgay, became the first to reach Mount Everest’s “summit” (Hamlet, 1600). Without Shakespeare, the two might instead be remembered as the first climbers(?) / hikers(?) / crazy mountain-men(?) to reach the tippy-top(?) / highest point(?), of Mount Everest. Doesn’t sound nearly as cool, right?
Reason #7 invites you to imagine for a moment how the chorus to The Beatles’ hit, Eleanor Rigby might have sounded, had Shakespeare not lived to write Coriolanus, (1607) and introduce the world to the word “lonely”.
“Ah, look at all the [solitary] people” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
OK, you get the idea.
So if we add the 7 reasons above to the literally HUNDREDS of other words and phrases coined by Shakespeare that we use every single day, (like blanket, bump, buzzer, champion, compromise, critic, elbow, excitement, label, luggage — the list goes on and on), together with his 37 plays, 154 sonnets, and 5 narrative poems, we have WAY more than 400 reasons to celebrate the Bard. But I’ll offer just one more — my favorite reason — also a word, but not one he coined: RELEVANCE
Fast-forward 400 years to a world where most of us communicate screen-to-screen, via hashtags, emoji’s, abbreviations (LOL), and 10-second “snaps” with a maximum shelf-life of 24 hours, and ask yourself, “how does Shakespeare fit in?” Don’t get me wrong — I love technology (at least most of the time). It is an amazing tool for efficiency that can connect us to each other across “the great globe itself” in mere seconds. But are we really connecting, or just making contact?
As someone who grew up before the digital age, and who has spent the better part of the last 3 decades working with teenagers, I find myself worrying about today’s kids who are coming of age in a world of constant contact, with communication literally at their fingertips, yet who seem to feel increasingly alone — isolated by the very tools designed to connect them to others. For this reason, I would propose that Shakespeare is more relevant today than ever before, particularly for teenagers.
Why? Because Shakespeare reminds us how to communicate directly (face-to-face, no phone in hand), and honestly (yes, we can read your body language, see your facial expressions, and hear your tone of voice). He teaches us to choose our words carefully in the moment (no backspacing or deleting), and to deal with the consequences of our words and actions in real time, (you can’t press “mute” on a face-to-face conversation). Beyond the words themselves and the inherent risks involved in face-to-face interactions, Shakespeare’s stories and characters give today’s audiences, young and old, a lens through which we can see ourselves and the human experience - a lens that transcends time, age, culture, and literally every barrier we have set up to separate ourselves from one another. In an inherently ethnocentric society, where individuals need to identify with some group or subgroup in order to “belong”, Shakespeare reminds us to embrace the human identity and celebrate all that we have in common as wonderfully imperfect, impulsive, and ever-evolving creatures on the planet.
So I encourage you to celebrate the legacy of the world’s greatest architect of communication by connecting with each other in real time. Put down your cell phone. Go see a play. Have a face-to-face conversation. I think you’ll be glad you did.
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Check out some of our favorite Bard books and articles:
Read Louis Fantasia's Introduction to Playing Shakespeare's Characters: Monarchs and Madmen
Released in 2019