Why was Shakespeare so special?

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1. The big stuff

A friend of mine once asked a young girl why she liked Shakespeare. She replied: "Because he gets to the big stuff, really quickly." I’ve often thought about what makes Shakespeare special for me and, to be honest, I couldn't sum it up any better than that.

I think we probably all know what she meant but let’s spell it out: love, death, power, conflict, hate, revenge, war, jealousy, rivalry, fear, sadness, rage, hope, laughter and disaster. That's quite a list.

I was introduced to Shakespeare by my parents, seeing school plays, going on trips to the theatre and watching the plays on TV, but I'll never forget seeing the wonderful Dame Judi Dench playing Juliet, so full of passion, energy and hope – and then so full of misery and loss at the end.

2. The storyteller

Michael Rosen discusses why he thinks Shakespeare was so great.

3. Not of an age, but for all time

Seven years after Shakespeare's death, a giant edition of his plays, known as the First Folio, was published.

Without this, many of the plays would probably have been lost forever, and we can now pore over every word, line and speech.

The book's preface was written by another of the leading Elizabethan dramatists, Ben Jonson, who paid him a fulsome tribute: "Soul of the age! The applause, delight, the wonder of our stage!"

But what of the other playwrights? Jonson wrote wonderful plays too. I really like them but I can see that they are perhaps a bit too cynical to grab the popular taste.

Christopher Marlowe was another. His plays are full of great poetry – I really like the bombast in them – but perhaps some find them a bit excessive.

Shakespeare, however, had the wit and wisdom to steal plots and ideas from a lot of the plays of that era and top them with better poetry.

He also had more insight into characters’ feelings and motives, and cleverer handling of light and dark, change of pace, and the weighing up of right and wrong.

The test of time

But let’s not get carried away here, if you whizz through time, you don’t always find whole Shakespeare plays filling theatres. There were times when great actors would just perform the big speeches, the soliloquies and not the entire plays.

18th Century actors such as David Garrick did them as turns, and in Stratford there was always the annual Shakespeare pageant – though even that, some years, saw some pretty forlorn parades.

Sometimes the plays were "improved" with new endings, or by taking out all of the rude bits. Personally, I love the rude bits. They’re part of what makes the plays so human. They’re about our minds and our bodies.

4. Shakespeare lives

Shakespeare is all around us, even in our daily vocabulary.

Michael Rosen and actor Hadley Fraser discuss what makes Shakespeare so special on location at the Old Vic in Bristol.

5. On shaky ground

Shakespeare loved to shock the audiences of his plays. But what about his private life? Here are a few facts about the playwright that might surprise you.

Written in stone

Shakespeare actually wrote a curse for his gravestone, defying anyone to move his bones. He's buried in the Church of the Holy Trinity, Stratford-upon-Avon.


Life after death

"Good friend for Jesus’ sake forbear, To dig the dust enclosed here: Blest be the man that spares these stones, And curst be he that moves my bones."

You'd better lie down

In his will, he famously only left his wife his "second best bed and furniture". Why it wasn't his best bed is up for debate.


A widow's dower

Beds of affluent people were expensive items, though, and perhaps his wife was self-sufficient by this point. It was also common for children to inherit more.

Lean and mean

The gentry would often hoard food, and then during lean times sell it on to the poor at massively over-inflated prices.



Despite being a wealthy man, Shakespeare did his best to avoid paying taxes. In 1598 he was in trouble for hoarding both corn and ale.