Why Is William Shakespeare so Famous?

He's been popular for 400 years

Shakespeare is undoubtedly the world’s most influential poet and dramatist. In a poem titled "To the Memory of My Beloved the Author, Mr. William Shakespeare," Ben Jonson noted, "He was not of an age, but for all time!" Now, four centuries later, Jonson’s words still ring true.

Students and readers new to Shakespeare often ask, “Why is William Shakespeare famous? Why has he stood the test of time?” In an attempt to answer this question, here are five top reasons for Shakespeare’s centuries-long popularity.

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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 have lasted if people weren't able to identify with the characters and the emotions they experience. Love, loss, grief, lust, anguish, desire for revenge—they're all there in Shakespeare's plays and they're all present in the lives of modern-day readers.

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His Writing Is Masterful

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 and even sonnets. Shakespeare understood the power of language—its ability to paint landscapes, create atmospheres, and bring alive compelling characters.

His dialogue is memorable, from the mental anguish of his characters in tragedies to his characters' jokes and witty insults in 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 Shakespeare in our everyday conversation. "For goodness’ sake” ("Henry VIII") and "dead as a doornail" ("Henry VI Part II") can both be attributed to him, as well as jealousy described as a "green-eyed monster" ("Othello") and people going overboard to "kill with kindness" ("Taming of the Shrew").

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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 he is possibly the crowning achievement of the playwright's career. Shakespeare’s skillful and psychologically astute characterization is utterly remarkable because it was written hundreds of years before psychology became a recognized field of study. You can read an in-depth character analysis of Hamlet here.

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He Wrote 'Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day?' (Sonnet 18)

William Shakespeare
Shakespeare’s collection of 154 love sonnets is possibly the most beautiful written in the English language.

Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

Shakespeare’s 154 love sonnets are possibly the most beautiful ever 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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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 responsible for what is often considered the greatest love story of all time: "Romeo and Juliet." The play has become an enduring symbol of romanticism in popular culture, and the titular characters' names will forever be associated with young, enthusiastic love. This tragedy has entertained across the generations and spawned endless stage versions, film adaptations, and derivatives, including Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film and the Broadway musical "West Side Story."

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Jamieson, Lee. "Why Is William Shakespeare so Famous?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/shakespeare-popular-for-400-years-2985059. Jamieson, Lee. (2023, April 5). Why Is William Shakespeare so Famous? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/shakespeare-popular-for-400-years-2985059 Jamieson, Lee. "Why Is William Shakespeare so Famous?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/shakespeare-popular-for-400-years-2985059 (accessed May 29, 2023).