The Paradox That Makes Shakespeare Great

HAMLET: “What a piece of work is man, How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, In form and moving how express and admirable, In action how like an Angel, In apprehension how like a god, The beauty of the world, The paragon of animals.”


CHIRON: “Thou hast undone our mother.”
AARON: “Villain, I have done thy mother.”

– Titus Andronicus

An ode to human greatness. A bawdy “your mother” joke. You wouldn’t expect to find both from the same writer, but these strange neighbors are exactly what you’ll find in any of William Shakespeare’s plays.

I’ve been watching a fair number of Shakespeare’s plays recently and soaking up what it might have been like to experience these performances in his day. I think I understand why he was so beloved – and why his writing is so compelling today.

Shakespeare somehow combines the loftiest human thoughts with, well, sophisticated dick jokes.  And it works. 

It’s not hard to write a story with a bunch of crude humor in it. It’s also easy to write a sappy, sentimental story of high virtues. The world has far more than enough of these books and movies and plays. They are a dime a dozen, and there is something unreal about them. They don’t show us what we are or what the world is in truth.

The real world is more noble than the crude comedy and more earthy than the courtly romance. People are complicated. People can do silly, stupid things, but people are also heroic. 

Shakespeare understood this. Running a theatre would have taught him to create stories any human being could relate to, whether the lowborn in the cheap seats or the highborn patrons above. His plays wedded the high and the low into entertainment which appealed to every human in the Globe Theatre – and more importantly, to every part of the human heart.

Go see a Shakespeare performance soon. See if these plays don’t ring more true, stir your heart more, or make you belly-laugh more than anything on television today.

James Walpole

James Walpole is a writer, startup marketer, and perpetual apprentice. You're reading his blog right now, and he really appreciates it. Don't let it go to his head, though.

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