The plays of William Shakespeare have been endlessly adapted, transformed, and used loosely as inspiration for a countless number of artistic works, from TV shows to Broadway musicals. Shakespeare is “everywhere, in every literary form you can imagine,” although sometimes this can be difficult to see, as many versions of Shakespeare depart drastically from the original. Not all adaptations retain the same title, not all use Elizabethan English, and many move beyond the stage or screen, appearing in forms such as an opera or a novel.
Shakespeare’s plays are perhaps the preeminent example of literature taking on a “life of its own.” It is pretty much impossible to avoid encountering Shakespeare’s work if you live in the English-speaking world—although much of the time, you likely won’t even notice it! For this reason, gaining familiarity with Shakespeare is one of the most useful things students of literature can do.
Of all the Shakespearean-inflected works, Foster declares that his favorite is Angela Carter’s Wise Children (1992), which he first referenced at the end of the previous chapter. The novel follows a dynasty of famous Shakespearean actors, and allusions to Shakespeare’s plays come in the form of a spousal murder-suicide, death by drowning, women dressed as men, and more. However, Shakespeare’s influence is not only found within works of art and literature. Quotations from Shakespeare’s plays are so commonplace that there’s a large chance you might have already heard one today.
Shakespeare’s plays provide a great example of the impact literature can have on society. The English language is full of Shakespearean “neologisms,” meaning words or phrases that Shakespeare invented himself. Furthermore, Shakespeare’s place in our collective memory has helped shape a sense of Western cultural identity, and can connect our current society with those who lived centuries before us.
Foster argues that part of the reason why Shakespeare is so popular is because writers are obsessed with him. Quoting Shakespeare makes you seem smart, though Foster is quick to point out that you don’t necessarily have to be familiar with Shakespeare’s work in order to quote him. Rather, many of us have Shakespeare’s words at the forefront of our minds simply because they are so emotionally powerful. Furthermore, quoting Shakespeare “confers authority” in a similar way to quoting the Bible, simply because more people have read his work than that of any other author of literature.
In this passage Foster implies that Shakespeare’s impact on literature and culture is akin to that of a religion. Although this might at first seem far-fetched, Foster offers convincing examples to back up his point. The similarity between the “authority” given by quoting Shakespeare and the authority of quoting the Bible is based on the fact that Shakespeare’s plays investigate the deepest questions about human existence and morality.
Another, less obvious reason why writers love Shakespeare is because they can “struggle” against him. The (sometimes fraught) relationship of writers to their literary predecessors is all part of the web of intertextuality. In T.S. Eliot’s “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1917) the main character bashfully declares that he is no Hamlet, thereby emphasizing Shakespeare’s intimidating legacy. Note that this is a typical way in which authors feature allusions to Shakespeare—while it is rare for exact passages and plots of Shakespeare’s to reappear in other literary works, countless authors engage in dialogue with Shakespeare by reworking, alluding to, or responding to the Bard’s work within their own.
The literary critic Harold Bloom is famous for his argument about the relationship of writers to their predecessors, which he describes as the “anxiety of influence.” Here, Foster shows how this phenomenon is a crucial component of intertextuality. Foster also suggests that, due to Shakespeare’s vast influence, writers end up in dialogue with his work whether they like it or not.
One example of a writer reworking Shakespeare is the South African writer Athol Fugard in his play Master Harold… and the Boys (1982). Fugard explores similar themes to Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part II, invoking the figure of a young man who must become mature in order to assume power within an unjust system. In doing so, Fugard suggests that the South African Apartheid regime emerged from the same misguided, immoral thinking that stated monarchs had a “divine right” to rule. This connection both deepens our understanding of Master Harold and simultaneously presents Henry IV, Part II in a critical new light.
Here Foster returns to the idea that Shakespeare deals with themes that are universally resonant. On the surface, 1950s South Africa and medieval England are very different places, facing completely different issues. However, by alluding to “Henry IV, Part II,” Fugard shows that the political climate that led to Apartheid was plagued by many of the same problems that have afflicted humanity throughout history.