There are certain figures in Western history that become bywords for success. Whether it is Einstein in the Sciences, Picasso in the Arts, Nightingale in Medicine, Brando in Film, or Oprah in Philanthropy. Their names become a communal shorthand for giving credit to new or burgeoning works or acts by others who are rising through the echelons. A common phrase one might here is, ‘He/she’s the next…’ and put the appropriate qualifying title that connects to one of the people who have become the model for certain types of excellence. One of these persons who is synonymous with unparalleled accomplishments, is William Shakespeare; and he arguably remains one of the most influence individuals in the history of the world.
The facts about The Bard of Avon’s life are few and often debated over at very important crossroads. A kind of mystery permeates the writing and life of Shakespeare, one in and of itself that potentially spurs the perennial interest in his oeuvre. To this point there are many who actually argue that he is not a real person, or at least, that he was either a part of a group of writers who published under a single name, or that he was really the 17th Earl of Oxford, among other famous personages of the time. These mysteries add to the whole experience and depth to both the content and collection of the writings of Shakespeare, but regardless of these rabbit holes that many go down, his credentials speak to the hardiness of his craft.
Translated into every living language, having over 20,000 musical works linked to his work, being performed more than any other playwright still today, introducing themes and styles again and again that were revolutionary for the theater of his time, changing the very structure and use of the English Language… to name a few. It is hard to really understand how one single person can have so much influence over such a long period of time; its been 400 years since his death as of 2016… but here is a brief presentation of why this all might be.
During his day, as a playwright, he was neither the most famous and well-known nor the most insignificant and benign, which allowed him to occupy a position that was not saddled with the limits of wide public expectations. He not only wrote but also acted, and worked as a business owner of The Globe theatre giving him a versatility to explore diverse perspectives of societal roles. He happened to choose an artistic medium which has not only remained relevant until today, but has also be re-imagined in the arena of film, where adaptations of his work is rampant. He wrote to both the high philosophical minds of his educated audience and to the bawdy and mocking sentiments of the underclasses.
What Shakespeare may have done in and through his writing was bound to the days of his life, and history often takes and shakes what anyone might create, running it through a gauntlet of waning interest. There are few writers of even 100 years ago that are read in every High School in North America. How did writing which represents linguistically the earliest period of the modern English language remain so relevant? Every century after his death certain others found such power and prestige in his profound language and narrative complexity that their compelling arguments for Shakespeare’s greatness actually built a stage for him in many next generations. The fame of which the modern person thinks of Shakespeare really only encapsulates the last century or so of his recognition, not to say he was not recognized in his genius before then.
Thus the proverbial tales of time and chance, rags to riches, destiny and fate, swirl in a kind of dizzying employ which settles into the minds of every person, thinking of themselves in their own life, asking the questions, how, when, why? To fulfill a purpose in life is a complicated scheme and often we are saddled with much difficulty in ever really accomplishing what it is we think we might want to do or create. It would be interesting to hear some like Malcolm Gladwell talk about whether Shakespeare is a kind of outlier, or for others to discuss him as a genius destined to grandeur from birth, and even for some to consider him in a peculiar light and say, ‘maybe he was just really himself, without illusions of greatness, not trying to be anyone else or follow some other’s path, nor did he want anything but a kind and generous life connected to those he loved around him who gave joy to the minutes and hours of the daily living’.
Success is a slippery word with all kinds of connotations that bind it to each generation and era of ideals and fashions, differently. It is unfortunate that a hierarchy exists in nearly every society so that everyone is measured against a painful scaffolding that constantly oppresses both those at the top and the bottom, and leaves very little peace and freedom to be felt during the journey from birth to death, where the questions of tomorrow are not always answered.
Go out there and make a success that has never been, that is not bound to the model’s that are lifted up and handed to you as greatness, make it weird and wacky, beautiful and delicate, make it however it feels joyous and loving and share that with everyone. Success is just you, living and trying to strive for yourself and others, in whatever way that happens, to speak your truth and the unique perspective you have that no one else can.
Author: Jonathan M. Bessette
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