#ShakespeareLives in 2016: How Shakespeare's Plays Reflect Current Affairs

As Macbeth would have it, our Autumnal times "have fallen into the sere, the yellow leaf," our Winter's Tale approaches and before too long it will be Twelfth Night and the start of the quatercentenary commemoration year of the death of Shakespeare (or the start of his legacy as the less morbidly minded prefer). As the world -- and it will be the whole world -- marks the 2016 anniversary, we might recall the dying and departing exclamations of some of his greatest creations.

Tell my story! says Hamlet, pleading that the magnitude of his experience continue to inform the world, just as his own father had pleaded Remember me!

Look there! cries King Lear desperately begging a distraught gaggle of war survivors and a stunned audience to witness, to see better

And Prospero's direct ask of us, of his audience, of all his audiences from 1611 to 2016 and across all countries of the world, is, by our applause, to set me free!

In 2016 the world gathers to applaud, to set Shakespeare free, liberating his plays into the meaning of our times. We remember him and must tell his story.

In what lies the extraordinary power of this man? He is studied in school by more than 50 percent of the world's population when no other creative figure in history is studied by more than 1 or 2 percent. He is more performed today than any other dramatist including any contemporary playwright.

His power lies in his mastery of the dramatic, rather than the literary, and of experience rather than scholarship. Shakespeare was consummately a dramatist. We misrepresent him when we call him our greatest poet or writer. In fact he only wrote poems at length -- The Rape of Lucrece, Venus and Adonis -- when the theatre was unavailable to him due to plague closure between 1592 and 1594

Theatre, consciously so for Shakespeare, can only be created of the here and now and therefore can only be contemporary in performance. However ancient the text, it can be presented (made present) only by real people in specific places in actual time. And the form can only be animated, enlivened as theatre just as Leontes touches Hermione into life in The Winter's Tale, by the witness of an audience, of ourselves, who literally "realize" the play in the here and the now with our -- a great Shakespearean word -- "respect," literally our looking-back, our witness. "Nothing I see is good without respect."

This is what makes any Shakespearean play necessarily contemporary, of-the-moment and what accounts for thousands of productions and millions of audiences finding immediate and personal truth and relevance in what they "see and believe."

And what contemporariness! In 2016 we can list most of the global issues and critical agendas of our times and find deep Shakespearean resonance and exploration:

  • Refugee crises as numerous immigrants flee foreign oppression or shipwreck and seek to survive alien lands (from Comedy of Errors to The Winter's Tale)
  • Inequality and poverty (from King Lear to Timon of Athens)
  • The value of higher education versus learning from experience (from Love's Labour's Lost to Henry IV)
  • The just war and the just assassination (from Henry V to Julius Caesar)
  • Racism, prejudice and xenophobia (from Merchant of Venice to Othello)
  • Imprisonment and punishment (from Measure for Measure to Two Noble Kinsmen)
  • The machinations of the tyrant (from Richard III to Macbeth)
  • The clashing of civilizations (from Troilus and Cressida to  Antony and Cleopatra)
  • Tribal loyalties, gang warfare, urban fracture (from Romeo and Juliet to Coriolanus)
  • The symbolic meaning of the sovereign whether in a first or second Elizabethan age (from Richard II to Henry VIII)
  • Slavery and servitude (from Taming of the Shrew to The Tempest)
  • Macroeconomics, credit crises, debt (from The Merchant of Venice  to Timon of Athens)

And we could add: explorations of the typology of governance (dictatorship, oligarchy, democracy); qualities for leadership; the nature of justice and law; political and social corruption embraced by party spin and hypocrisy; class, caste and social mobility; nature and the environment; international public diplomacy; sexual predation and  harassment; mental health; the envisioning of worlds and more hopeful futures and, certainly in every comedy, how to make society work and communities cohere.

"The world must be peopled," says Benedick, and Shakespeare was the most intense analyzer, through real people on his stages, of how diversity must be accommodated and how tolerance and inclusion need to be the watchwords of the good life. A contemporary take on diversity emanates from all his plays -- gender (women solve all his comedies except, with willful cynicism, The Shrew), ageism, religious difference, ethnicity, sexuality, disability.

Above all we celebrate with awe the human insight, as recognized by every commentator and critic of Shakespeare since Ben Jonson championed him in the first folio as "not of an age but for all time." Shakespeare is the world's first go-to for greed, lust, anger, jealousy, envy, betrayal and hypocrisy but also for mercy, loyalty, justice, friendship, grace, honor, respect, tolerance, faith (by which audience make plays live)  -- and, of course, love which, finally, is the fundamental dynamic of the 38 worlds that Shakespeare created for our contemporary stage. And, in this commemoration year, we must remember that Shakespeare was our greatest explorer of the "undiscovered country," of death, of mortality, of transience. People, actors, shadows, audiences, "this great globe" (theatre and world) itself will "fall and cease" leaving "not a wrack behind." Except, that is, Shakespeare himself who, somehow, left us everything.