from Shakespeare: A Dramatic Life
by Stanley Wells, former Director of the Shakespeare Institute
Shakespeare is all around us as both a source of pleasure and an instrument of education. His plays are central to the theatrical repertoire, not only in English speaking countries, but in many others too. They form the basis of innumerable films, operas, ballets and musical scores. Poets, novelists, and dramatists play variations on their narratives, characters and ideas. Some of their characters have acquired the status of mythic figures: we can speak of a Shylock, a Romeo, or a Hamlet, as of an Adonis, a Don Juan or a Scrooge without implying reference to the works in which they occur. Shakespeare has had an ineradicable influence on the English language, so that we often quote him without knowing that we are doing so.
Shakespeare was not the only great dramatist of his time. He learned from many others, especially, early in his career from John Lyly, Robert Greene and Christopher Marlowe. Some of his contemporaries succeeded in ways he did not attempt. Ben Jonson is the greater satirist. Thomas Middleton is the more acute observer of contemporary life. Shakespeare is predominantly romantic in tone. Still, he is unique among his fellows for the range of his achievement . . . He so often grapples with fundamental issues that never cease to concern us: with love and hate, with wit and folly, with the waywardness of the sexual instinct, with relations between generations, with violence and tenderness, with problems of self-government and national government, with our need to come to grips with the inevitability of death and our yearning to find meaning in existence. He is finally, the most humane of writers, the one who most poignantly convinces us of his compassion for his fellow human beings, and it's for this that we value him most.