Shakespeare's Been Popular for 400 Years

Shakespeare is undoubtedly the world’s most influential poet and dramatist, leading Ben Jonson to note, "He was not of an age, but for all time!" in the poem, "To the Memory of My Beloved the Author, Mr. William Shakespeare." Four centuries later, Jonson’s words still ring true. Students and people new to Shakespeare often ask, “Why has Shakespeare stood the test of time?” In an attempt to answer this question, here are five top reasons for Shakespeare’s success.

Why Is Shakespeare So Popular?

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He Gave Us Hamlet

William Shakespeare
French actor Jean-Louis Trintignant holding the skull of Yorik during a scene from the Shakespeare play 'Hamlet', Paris, circa 1959. Keystone / Getty Images

Without a doubt, Hamlet is one of the greatest dramatic characters ever created and is possibly the crowning achievement of Shakespeare’s career. Shakespeare’s skilfull and psychologically astute characterization is utterly remarkable because it was written hundreds of years before the concept of psychology was defined for study.

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His Themes Are Universal

William Shakespeare
The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare. Illustration by Hugh Thomson, 1910. Illustration to beginning of Act 3, which introduced the phrase “”A laughing stock” to the English language. Culture Club / Getty Images

Whether writing tragedy, history, or comedy, Shakespeare's plays wouldn't be worth performing today—and wouldn't have lasted—if people wouldn't be able to identify with the characters and the emotions they experience: love, loss, grief, lust, anguish, desire for revenge—they're all there.

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He Wrote "Sonnet 18: Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day?"

William Shakespeare
Shakespeare’s collection of 154 love sonnets is possibly the most beautiful written in the English language. William Shakespeare [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Shakespeare’s collection of 154 love sonnets is possibly the most beautiful written in the English language. Although not necessarily Shakespeare’s best sonnet, "Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?" is certainly his most famous. The sonnet’s endurance comes from Shakespeare’s ability to capture the essence of love so cleanly and succinctly.

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His Writing Endures

William Shakespeare
English actor John Henderson (1747 - 1785) as Macbeth, in consultation with the three witches in Act IV, Scene I of Shakespeare's play 'Macbeth', circa 1780. An engraving by Gebbie & Husson Co. Ltd, from 'The Stage and Its Stars Past and Present', 1887. Kean Collection / Getty Images

Every moment of Shakespeare’s plays drips poetry, as characters frequently speak in iambic pentameter (five sets of unstressed and stressed syllables per line) and in sonnets.  Shakespeare understood the power of language—its ability to paint landscapes, create atmospheres, and create compelling characters. Shakespeare wrote for his fellow actors, and his dialogue, therefore, translates into performance with ease. Forget criticism and textual analysis, because everything an actor needs to understand and perform Shakespeare is right there in the dialogue.

Next, his dialogue is memorable, from the mental anguish of his characters in tragedies to his characters' jokes and witty insults in his comedies. For example, two of his tragedies include the famous lines: "To be, or not to be, that is the question" from Hamlet, and "O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?" from Romeo and Juliet. For his famous insults, well, there's an entire adult card game (Bards Dispense Profanity) based on them, for starters.

Today, we still use hundreds of words and phrases coined by him in our everyday conversation, everything from "for goodness’ sake” from (Henry VIII), to "dead as a doornail" (Henry VI Part II). Jealousy is described as a "green-eyed monster" (Othello), and people are able to go overboard and "kill with kindness" (Taming of the Shrew).

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He Gave Us Romeo and Juliet

William Shakespeare
Claire Danes is surprised as Leonardo DiCaprio takes her hand to kiss in scene from the film 'Romeo + Juliet', 1996. 20th Century Fox / Getty Images

Shakespeare is known for writing arguably the greatest love story of all time: Romeo and Juliet. Thanks to Shakespeare, the name Romeo will forever be associated with a young lover, and the play has become an enduring symbol of romanticism in popular culture. This tragedy has entertained across the generations and spawned endless stage versions and film adaptations, including Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film classic.