Why was Shakespeare so special?

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.

Michael Rosen, poet and former Children's Laureate.
Presented by Michael Rosen, poet and former Children's Laureate.

The storyteller

Michael Rosen discusses why he thinks Shakespeare was so great

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.

Top to bottom: Shakespeare portrait, Shakespeare's Folio and a scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Top to bottom: Shakespeare portrait, Shakespeare's Folio and a scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream.

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.

Learn more about this topic:

William Shakespeare: The life and legacy of England’s bard
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Why is the Bard so popular abroad?
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How has Shakespeare influenced us?
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