Shakespeare is studied in school by over 50% of the world’s population. No other creative figure from history is studied by more than 1% or 2%. He is the UK’s greatest ambassador abroad and one of the country’s most important soft power assets.

When young adults in other countries were asked to name a person associated with contemporary UK culture they are interested in, ‘Shakespeare’ was by far the most popular response. He has inspired generations of world leaders, politicians, writers, thinkers, artists, composers, and film makers. The GREAT Campaign, the BBC, the BFI, the RSC, the National Theatre, Shakespeare’s Globe, the British Council and others are planning to celebrate Shakespeare as a global figure in 2016, the 400th anniversary of his death. As well as an opportunity for a great cultural and educational celebration, it is hoped the occasion will support the UK’s influence around the world and strengthen international relationships, with potential benefits in tourism, education, trade and investment.

As the world gears up to mark the 400th anniversary Paul Smith, the British Council’s in-house Shakespeare expert, examines what gives Shakespeare his extraordinary and enduring power:

Not of one age but for all time

Shakespeare’s power lies in his mastery of the dramatic, not the literary – of human experience rather than scholarship. We misrepresent him when we call him our greatest poet or writer. Essentially he was a dramatist. Drama can only be created of the here-and-now and so is necessarily contemporary. It can only be presented by real people in specific places in actual time. And it can only be given life by a receptive audience. This is what makes Shakespeare’s plays current, and why millions of people find personal truth and relevance in what they see.

Shakespeare’s themes were extraordinarily contemporary


And Shakespeare’s themes were extraordinarily contemporary. Even today, we can list most of the global issues of our times and find deep Shakespearean resonance:  

  • Refugees (Comedy of Errors and Winter’s Tale)
  • The clash of civilisations (Troilus and Cressida and Antony and Cleopatra)
  • Gang warfare and urban fracture (Romeo and Juliet and Coriolanus)
  • Tyranny (Richard III and Macbeth)
  • Just war and the just assassination (Henry V and Julius Caesar)
  • Racism and prejudice (Merchant of Venice and Othello) 
  • Inequality and poverty (King Lear and Timon of Athens)
  • Imprisonment and punishment (Measure for Measure and Two Noble Kinsmen)
  • Servitude and slavery (Taming of the Shrew and The Tempest)
  • Debt (Timon of Athens and Merchant of Venice)

And we could add: explorations of government, leadership, law, justice, corruption, diplomacy, social mobility and – certainly in the comedies – how to make communities work.

Even the narrative of contemporary British identity is marked out: from Lear’s division of the kingdom to the restoration of Scotland in Macbeth, from the panorama of Welsh, Scottish, Irish and English viewpoints in the History plays to what characterises “this England” in Richard II.

The world must be peopled

Shakespeare was the most intense analyser of the importance of tolerating people’s differences

“The world must be peopled” and Shakespeare was the most intense analyser of the importance of tolerating people’s differences. A contemporary take on diversity emanates from all his plays – gender (women solve most of his comedies), class, age, ethnicity, disability, and sexuality. 

So above all we celebrate Shakespeare’s awesome human insight, recognised by every commentator since Ben Jonson championed him as “not of an age but for all time”. Shakespeare is the world’s voice for greed, lust, anger, jealousy, and betrayal – but also for mercy, honour, justice, loyalty, and friendship. And for love: the most fundamental dynamic of the worlds that he created.

Finally this year we remember that Shakespeare was our greatest explorer of the “undiscovered country” of death. Actors, audiences, “this great globe” itself will “fall and cease” leaving “not a wrack behind”. But Shakespeare himself will survive – the man who, somehow, left us everything.