Shakespeare's Wit and Humor, Pathos and Anger Remains Vital, 450 Years After His Birth

by Daniel Rasmus

21 May 2014

As the creator of iambic fictions, Shakespeare is the ultimate meme. His name stirs a cascade of associations, memories and feelings in all who are touched by his work.
Above: William Shakespeare with cell phone image from

As the creator of iambic fictions, Shakespeare is the ultimate meme. His name stirs a cascade of associations, memories and feelings in all who are touched by his work.

On 23 April 2014, the purported date of Shakespeare’s birth, I visited Shakespeare’s Globe in London to gain some perspective on what Shakespeare means to the 21st Century.

My first impression went to globalization. Later in the day, the Globe would launch an ambitious world tour of Hamlet, beginning in London in 2014 and ending in London on the same day in 2016. Over the course of the two year period, the Globe’s production of Hamlet would visit each country in the world, just once. The Globe is making a statement about inclusiveness, believing that “...every country is better off for the presence of Hamlet.”

Hamlet, became a global play not long after it was written. In 1608, the Globe reminds us in its press release, Hamlet, having already traveled across Northern Europe, was even performed on a ship for the rulers of Yemen.

Hamlet is Shakespeare of course, but Shakespeare is not Hamlet. For the nearly political egalitarianism of the Globe, taking a play as ambassador is a worthy goal. But Shakespeare permeates popular culture well beyond the confines of the stage. Although his works have, unfortunately, gained a reputation for stodginess given the high school experiences of many an English-speaking student, many learn to go beyond rumor, coming to appreciate the wit and humor, pathos and anger found in Shakespeare’s works. Some even perform in school productions or simply use the plays to increase their repertoire of insults. Those who really “get” Shakespeare realize that he was more akin to cable television with its edgy, but controlled subversiveness than some stuffy, off-putting literature with near biblical overtones.

Allegory and metaphor cloaked political and social commentary in entertainment. I have no doubt that in today’s media world, Shakespeare would have prompted tweets and retweets by millions of ardent twitter followers. And he would have owned a very popular Facebook page. Indeed, pages related to Shakespeare on Facebook, for example, range from the venerable Paris bookshop Shakespeare and Company, to pages about the movie Shakespeare in Love, quotation pages, acting companies, businesses named for him, such as “Shakespeare’s Pizza”, and new literary properties like the IDW graphic novels Kill Shakespeare. Shakespeare the man became a modern day social media phenomenon without any personal effort.

I recently attended Emerald City Comic Con and met Anthony Del Col, one of the co-creators and co-writers of Kill Shakespeare. Del Col is an ardent fan, but unabashedly more Shakespearian than those who approach the bard’s work literary with kid gloves. Under the pen and ink of Del Col and co-creator Conor McCreery, Kill Shakespeare becomes a sort of midsummer’s nightmare in which many of Shakespeare’s characters seek to release themselves from the reclusive wizard Shakespeare and the enchanted quill he used to create, and in many cases, destroy their worlds. This is a dark, fun romp through a re-imagined Shakespeare universe in which Hamlet, Richard III, Falstaff and Prospero co-exist, co-conspire and co-commiserate in an alternative universe, all amid lavish, phantasmagoric art from Andy Belanger.

Kill Shakespeare has met with mixed reviews; praise by many for its ambitions and art, nit picking about plot and language by Shakespearian purists. But Shakespeare’s entrepreneurial side would have praised the creators, and IDW, for leveraging its fan base. The graphic novel has been performed by Gideon Productions and it has become a game. And in true Shakespearian style, the writers and artists continue to explore the worlds they have created, developing new stories from among the ruin and rebirth chronicled in their first series of books. Kill Shakespeare also represents something he would have appreciated: a courage for invention.

With movies like Marvel’s Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier dominating the box office, the comic book, or its more mature incarnation, the graphic novel, sit at the center of today’s popular culture.

While Kill Shakespeare turns The Complete Works inside out, this isn’t the first, nor likely the last, attempt to place Shakespeare into a graphic novel. In more straight forward fashion, “No Fear” publisher Spark Notes has produced graphic novel versions of Shakespeare’s plays, and rival Cliff Notes offers Shakespeare in manga form. When too often Shakespeare is read rather than experienced in an education setting, these graphic forms bring some sense of action to complement solitary study.

Although Shakespeare would likely have proudly reveled in the repurposing of his creations, based on what we know of him from the legal system, he would also have promptly filled for copyright infringement.

Shakespeare’s impact on current popular culture extends well beyond the page. He appeared as a character in The LEGO Movie, but his roll didn’t end with the credits. Texas-based production company AMAA Productions developed Action Bill, a 14 day shoot that resulted in a five-minute film featuring a rather science fiction-oriented battle between William Shakespeare and a most revered modern thespian, William Shanter. In the end, Shatner becomes Shakespeare’s new Yorick.

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