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Tonight I'm gonna party like it's 1999!

Zunder, "Shakespeare and the End of Feudalism..." -- Jerz: EL150 (Intro to Literary Study)

"And it immediately establishes a parallel, by displacement, between action of the play, firmly placed in the British past, and the current times in which Shakespeare and his fellow Londoners were living."

I've always been fond of this concept of exploring current issues through telling a story set in a different place and time. I think a lot of times it can be more effective than just addressing the issue with a story directly set during contemporary times. People may have very set ideas about the state of the world nowadays, but if they view the same issues through the lens of a different time period, they may be more open to thinking about modern times in a different way. Arthur Miller made a very effective use of this with The Crucible, depicting the Salem witch trials to not-so-indirectly comment about the McCarthy trials of the 1950's. The new Battlestar Galactica, although set in outer space, constantly creates situations that parallel many elements in the war in Iraq and lots of other current events. The list goes on and on, and I've read theories that Shakespeare did this with a lot of his plays. Shakespeare couldn't have written a play that directly criticized the end of feudalism, but by taking a legend that everyone knew and putting a new apocalyptic end on it, he could certainly have been commenting on the times. He might not even have consciously done this, but the way society was changing certainly must have directly or indirectly influenced the way he told the story.
The best part is, though, that I don't need to know the specifics of the time Shakespeare lived in to still get the feeling of the end of an era from reading it. I think that with each passing generation, especially when you're going into a new century (as evidenced by the Y2K scare of 1999), people are going to feel like the best times are coming to an end because of the way the world's changing. They can't envision how society could possibly move on with all the changes they see around them and pine for the lifestyle they knew. But I think Shakespeare's message about the end of feudalism definitely has some truth; the more self-interested people become, the worse it gets for society as a whole.

Comments (1)

Chera Pupi:

You're right Matt. Looking at the time period in which an author wrote can really tell you a lot about the play. I think it's interesting too and kind of play a little game with it. "What would the audience be thinking at this point?" It also really shows the timelessness of Shakespeare's work. I've said it before and I'll continue to say it, Shakespeare has got this amazing insight into human nature. The fact that we look at this play and understand where he's coming from and can compare it to something in our generation (Y2K) shows this. Change is hard for people--regardless of when they live and where they live. When things change, especially rapidly, people get scared. It's universal and that's what makes Shakespeare Shakespeare.

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