With all due respect to Hamlet, there are more questions than “To be or not to be.” That’s a good one, for sure, but another is this: Can Shakespeare make you a better person?
That is, can watching, listening, reading, and enjoying Shakespeare’s plays and poetry actually improve you in some ways?
It will surprise no one that I think the answer is yes. In fact, I think a familiarity with and appreciation for Shakespeare’s work can make you better in at least seven ways:
1. Shakespeare can move you
It works better when absorbing a good performance than in reading the words on a page, but when Shakespeare’s plays are acted well (even moderately so), they can make you cry at love so richly expressed as in Romeo and Juliet or burn at betrayal like that of Brutus in Julius Caesar. Even the comedies and romances will touch you in places that maybe haven’t been touched in a while–at least since the final episode of Parenthood.
2. Shakespeare can help you to think better
Shakespeare had a gift for conflicts and complexities that make people think. Is Shylock’s pursuit of “justice” any different from mine? At what point does ambition become bad? What is the price of impatience? Should I let my adult children move in with me?
3. Shakespeare can challenge your assumptions and beliefs
One way Shakespeare distinguished himself from his contemporaries was to challenge “conventional wisdom” (and prejudice) without getting into trouble with the authorities. Even today, a Shakespeare play can make you think twice about honor (Othello), loyalty (Julius Caesar), and race, ethnicity, justice, and mercy (The Merchant of Venice).
4. Shakespeare can enhance your imagination
Though he never traveled outside of England, Shakespeare set his plays in Scotland, Italy, Bavaria, Rome, Egypt, and more. The memorable characters and fantastical realms he created can evoke memories and provoke imagination. The questions and conundrums the plays and sonnets pose plumb the depths and heights of human experience and throw open doors to new ideas and possibilities.
5. Shakespeare can motivate you to do better
Art in general should push you to be a better person without preaching or pressure, and Shakespeare’s art does that. Every time I see Measure for Measure, I am reminded to choose kindness and mercy over justice. Romeo and Juliet makes me more attentive to be patient with the young and listen to what they’re saying. The Tempest inspires me to forgive and love those around me. King Lear makes me even more grateful for my loving wife and children.
6. Shakespeare can help you express your thoughts and feelings
Even a passing familiarity with Shakespeare can give you thoughts and words to express wonderful and difficult things, such as the ethereal and delicate nature of humanity (“We are such stuff as dreams are made on”—The Tempest), the wonders and mysteries of reality (“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”—Hamlet), and the wisdom of patience (“Wise and slow; they stumble that run fast”—Romeo and Juliet).
7. Shakespeare can make you sound smarter than you really are
Sometimes a single phrase from Shakespeare–such as “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players” (As You Like It) or “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” (The Merchant of Venice)–can punctuate a conversation and impress your friends and family. And who doesn’t like to do that? No one likes a know-it-all, of course (see Hamlet: Polonius), but it’s nice to make a good impression every so often.
So, yes, Shakespeare can make you a better person: someone who laughs often, thinks deeply, expresses gratitude, shows mercy, and loves well.