After almost 500 years since the plays of William Shakespeare were first performed, there is a reason many of them have stood the test of time.
Indeed, the tragedies, comedies, and histories Shakespeare wrote all contained incredible life lessons that, despite how different our society is today, still ring true.
So, in celebration of World Shakespeare Day on 23 April, here are five Shakespeare plays from the Bard himself that could teach you valuable life lessons.
1. ‘Romeo and Juliet’ teaches us that the old ways are not necessarily the best
Inspired by an ancient Italian folk tale, Romeo and Juliet tells of “star-cross’d lovers” who “take their life” after fighting against all odds to be together.
Battling an old feud that has plagued their families, the Montagues and the Capulets, for generations, Romeo and Juliet meet a bitter end. All this, because their families refuse to accept that times have changed, and are too stuck in their ways to allow the union.
This passionate, tragic love story has many lessons to it, but its key message is clear: the old ways may have once been important, but when they start proving problematic, it is time to reframe the narrative and open your mind to new possibilities.
2. ‘Hamlet’ warns of the perils of indecision
“To be, or not to be, that is the question.”
This is perhaps the most famous line the Bard ever wrote. It is Hamlet, a young man who has been visited by the ghost of his father claiming he was murdered, who delivers it. Hamlet wonders if he should end his own life, or avenge his father as the ghost has asked him to do.
In fact, throughout the play, Hamlet is weakened by the “hamartia”, better known as the “fatal flaw”, of indecision.
In our own lives, learning the dangers of sitting on the fence can push us to be bolder and braver in whatever we do.
Encouraging yourself to be more decisive can serve you well if, like Hamlet, you struggle with big choices. Doing so can increase your integrity, help propel you towards where you want to be in life, and might reduce your anxiety levels too.
3. ‘Twelfth Night’ shows that amazing opportunities can come from unexpected places
One of the most-performed comedies of all time, Twelfth Night is a play about a shipwreck, mistaken identity, and the results of falling in love with the “wrong” person.
After Viola is stranded on an island in search of her twin brother, Sebastian, she dons male clothing and gets a job with a wealthy Duke. Of course, she falls for the Duke, who has no idea she is a woman.
In the end, as with all Shakespearean comedies, Viola and the Duke marry, as do her brother and the object of his affection, Olivia. What starts off as a sister in search of a lost brother, ends up as a story of love, prosperity, and happiness after all.
If you sometimes feel cautious about exploring unchartered territory, you could learn a lot from Twelfth Night. Take a calculated risk in life, and you may find yourself meeting life-changing opportunities on your journey.
4. ‘King Lear’ reminds us that the most important things in life cannot be measured
Considered by some as the bleakest tragedy Shakespeare ever wrote, King Lear is not for the faint-hearted.
An aging king has three daughters. He accepts he needs to hand the keys of the kingdom down to one of them before he passes away, but instead of looking at their positive qualities, he asks each of them to profess how much they love him. The winner of this twisted competition will inherit the throne.
Two of his daughters, Goneril and Regan, are selfish and ambitious. They lavish their father with compliments, much to his delight. His third daughter, Cordelia, and the one he loves most of all, refuses. She claims that “I cannot heave my heart into my mouth”, and in his anger, her father banishes her from the kingdom. After this, his world falls apart, resulting in tragic deaths throughout the story.
The greedy, flattery-driven king in this play can teach us a very valuable lesson: the best things in life cannot be measured.
While it is important to measure your life in numbers sometimes, such as when formulating your financial plan, these calculations are fuelled by the immeasurable parts of life.
Indeed, your dreams, goals, and desires cannot be defined by metrics, so if you tend to live your life by weights and measures, it might be time to let go of those ideals and enjoy the journey more freely. Behind the scenes, your calculations can help make them possible, but the joys of life are there to be lived, not measured.
5. ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ demonstrates the value of childish fun
Lastly, the comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a feverish romp featuring fairies, love potions, a group of workmen trying to put on a play, a man turning into a donkey, and just about every other silly happening you can imagine.
This play is renowned for its ridiculous hilarity, and if you have ever caught a production of it, you will know just how infectious its silliness really is.
Simply put, A Midsummer Night’s Dream demonstrates one often-forgotten part of life: the joy found in childish fun.
In the serious, worrying world of today, many of us lock away our childish whims and focus on the sober side of life. But in doing so, we might be missing out on the opportunity to be light-hearted when we feel like it.
Whether it is playing make-believe with your children, going to a fancy dress party, or even catching a Shakespearean comedy at your local theatre, embracing your inner child is no bad thing. If you are bogged down with the doom and gloom of life, remind yourself that letting your hair down once in a while can be a magical experience.
All in all, no matter if you are a literary boffin or not, Shakespeare plays can all offer timeless life lessons that remind us what it means to be human. This World Shakespeare Day, why not take a leaf out of his book?