Understanding Shakespeare’s lasting influence

Friday October 23, 2015


Studying the works of William Shakespeare is seen as something of a rite of passage for students. It is a compulsory part of the curriculum and therefore something everyone will experience at some point in their academic career. However, one issue that teachers are often faced with is helping students understand the importance and relevance of Shakespeare’s work in the modern day.

With 37 plays and 154 sonnets to his name, there is no denying the impact Shakespeare had on the world of literature. However, with these plays and sonnets being written in the 16th and 17th centuries, many students struggle to relate to these famous tales, seeing them as out-dated and old fashioned.

Though students may not realise it, Shakespeare left behind a lasting influence, both on the language they speak and a lot of the culture they enjoy.


Modern language and popular phrases

It may have been almost 400 years since Shakespeare died, but his legacy has stood the test of time. It is estimated that over 1,700 of the words and phrases commonly used today can be traced back to the Bard. So, while we may not realise it, the English language owes a huge debt to Shakespeare. The following are just a handful of the many words and phrases to come from Shakespeare.

  • “For goodness sake” – Henry VIII
  • “Mum’s the word” – Henry VI, Part II
  • “Knock knock! Who’s there?” – Macbeth
  • “Break the ice” – The Taming of the Shrew
  • “Brevity is the soul of wit” – Hamlet
  • “Faint hearted” – Henry VI, Part I
  • “Fancy-free” – A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • “Forever and a day” – As You Like It
  • “The game is afoot” – Henry IV, Part I
  • “A wild goose chase” – Romeo and Juliet
  • “A heart of gold” – Henry V
  • “Fashionable” – Troilus and Cressida
  • “Swagger” – Henry V
  • “Rant” – Hamlet
  • “Own flesh and blood” – Hamlet
  • “Wear your heart on your sleeve” – Othello
  • “All of a sudden” – The Taming of the Shrew
  • “There’s method in my madness” – Hamlet
  • “Good riddance” – Troilus and Cressida
  • “Love is blind” – The Merchant of Venice

Adaptations and inspirations

A number of Shakespeare’s plays have been transported to the big screen, with some, such as Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet and Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing, being given a more modern makeover. However, what students may not realise is that some of their other favourite films have been directly influenced by the works of Shakespeare.


The Lion King

While most people will simply view The Lion King as a beloved Disney cartoon, upon closer inspection it is clear that it was influenced by Hamlet. Both feature a king who is killed by his jealous, power hungry brother, and the triumphant return of the rightful heir to the throne after a period away from the kingdom. Timon and Pumbaa are even said to have been based on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from Hamlet.


West Side Story

West Side Story began life as a Broadway musical and was later turned into a film, and both versions have been immensely popular for generations. West Side Story is a modern re-telling of Romeo and Juliet, with the Capulets and Montagues being replaced by the Sharks and the Jets, and Tony and Maria replacing Romeo and Juliet.


10 Things I Hate About You

10 Things I Hate About You was a modern adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew, and quickly became a critical success when it was released in 1999. The high school romantic comedy is still popular today and kick-started the careers of both Heath Ledger and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.


She’s the Man

She’s the Man saw Amanda Bynes play the role of Viola, who disguises herself as a boy in order to play football, in addition to romancing Channing Tatum’s Duke Orsino. While this story takes place in a new high school, rather than a shipwreck, the underlying story was clearly influenced by Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.


For students studying English and English Literature or Theatre, Drama and Performing Arts, our trips to London are a perfect way to improve their knowledge and understanding of Shakespeare’s work. Students can visit the Globe to watch one of Shakespeare’s many plays, take part in guided tours and interactive exhibitions and even participate in unique workshops that are tailored to the curriculum. To find out more about our Shakespeare trips to London, get in touch with the WST team.