Why Is Shakespeare so Important Today?

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William Shakespeare’s work has shaped English literature, language and thought for over 400 years. Scholar Alan Craven names him the “greatest dramatist, the greatest poet and the greatest prose writer” in the English language. Shakespeare’s coined words are incorporated into the language today as common parlance; his genres led to modern literary genres and his plays transformed theater. Most importantly, Shakespeare’s work changed the way Westerners think about humanity, ethics and themselves.

T.S. Eliot once said that Shakespeare and Dante divide the modern world between them. In other words, all literature and thought in the Western world today derives either from Shakespeare’s passionate, broad understanding of humanity or Dante’s equally passionate but strictly moral understanding. MIT’s Professor Alexander Huang points out that Shakespeare’s work informed and influenced the founding fathers of the United States from Jefferson to Lincoln. He was the most influential English-language writer of the English-speaking world.

Beyond that, Shakespeare shaped the English language itself. When he wrote his plays, French was considered the language of culture and English literature consisted of only a handful of works. Shakespeare modernized the English language. He introduced or recorded for the first time in his plays thousands of new words, many of which became household words. Hundreds of phrases and aphorisms – including the phrase “household words” – were also introduced in his work.