5 Ways Shakespeare shaped pop culture

Takshi Mehta 26 April 2022

The impact that Shakespeare has had on popular culture is as enduring as it is colossal—here are the ways he's done it

Cultural stereotypes and character templates

One of the most significant impacts made by Shakespeare, is the formation of cultural stereotypes based on his famous characters. Characters like Romeo, Lady Macbeth, Juliet and Hamlet have provided character templates to endless popular culture film and show characters, across the globe.

There are several characters that fall into the broad categories that these Shakespearean characters have built. Romeo for instance, is the fervent lover unto death, Lady Macbeth is the ambitious, and unremitting woman, while Hamlet is the indecisive man caught in the ground of morals.

They are all representative of a certain kind of person that has now become a standard character foundation that literature and cinema utilize incessantly in modern-day ventures. When every other romantic-comedy has an amorous and persistent lover who is willing to die for the love of his life, people will deem it to be a cliché, but Shakespeare is the man who gave wings to such characters in the first place.

Forget films, in mundane life, a person who’s lost in love is often called as Romeo, primarily because Shakespeare’s Romeo is symbolic of love without reason, passion without practicality, and it’s easy to call someone Romeo instead of putting words to the entire feeling, in fact one may also argue, that Romeo is an emotion now, and thereby he needs no words.

The star-crossed lovers trope

Perhaps, if one is to truly understand the magnitude of Shakespeare’s influence in modern culture, then it’s best to look at the forbidden love trope.

The famed Romeo and Juliet have given birth to several forbidden love stories, and star-crossed lovers have become legends. Titanic’s Jack and Rose are perhaps the prime example of the legacy Shakespeare’s tragic couple.

Of course, forbidden love stories did not originate with Shakespeare. We saw it in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, classical myths of Venus and Adonis and in South Asian continent, there’s Heer Ranjha and Laila Majnu. But Romeo-Juliet made this idea of frantic love accessible to masses and gave a face to a barrage of star-crossed lovers across time, and place.

"Titanic’s Jack and Rose are perhaps the prime example of the legacy Shakespeare’s tragic couple"

Star Trek and Shakespeare

The Shakespearean scholar Craig Dionne commented on Star Trek’s utilisation of Shakespeare, saying that it, “mirrors a long and largely unexamined aspect of Shakespeare’s common place in American culture’ shedding light on how the British Bard’s influence has crossed seven seas as well as transcended time. Star Trek, which began in 1965, has often directly used Shakespeare’s works and quotes.

The episode titles of the original series are borrowed from him, for instance, “The Conscience Of The King” or “Dagger Of The Mind”. This provides several generations starting from the 60s, to present-day to see Shakespeare in a completely different light all together, as someone who is cool enough to be referenced in one of the most popular science fiction franchises of all time.  

Shakespearean lingo

It’s impossible to discuss Shakespeare’s impact on modern culture without diving into the discourse of how he changed the English language. For instance, the popular phrase “wear my heart on my sleeve”, was coined by Shakespeare. The phrase has given rise to many modern songs, namely Gallagher and Lyle’s “Heart On My Sleeve” from their album, Breakaway.

There are countless phrases like this, including “love is blind” (now the title of a hit Netflix reality dating show) and “the green-eyed monster”. Moreover, one the most monumental remnants of Shakespeare in modern language is the word “Shakespearean” which has today taken all together another meaning, that is freestanding of any reference to the Bard’s plays. Politicians, Celebrities, and several other people have been described as icons of Shakespearan proportions, hinting at their great stature.

Art is political

The Bard is a reference point for many who wish to change the world with their art, and desire to comment on the socio-political scenarios through their poetry, prose, cinema and more.

Macbeth, Othello and Hamlet are all riveting political stories that have become an inspiration for several world leaders. Shakespeare writes in Julius Caesar, “the abuse of greatness is when it disjoins remorse from power”, commenting on the need of compassion as well as the ability to repent in politics. Words like these are starkly relevant even today and make for a good course to follow for world leaders.

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