Like it or not, nobody escapes the influence of the Renaissance playwright.
A trip to the movies in 1989 changed Jessica Maerz’s life.
Maerz, an assistant professor in the University of Arizona’s School of Theatre, Film & Television, was a junior in high school when she saw Kenneth Branagh’s “Henry V” movie, based on Shakespeare’s play.
“I was blown away,” says Maerz. “That film made that story feel so immediate and raw in a way that made me feel like ‘This is a story being told for me.’”
It has been almost 30 years since Maerz’s first exposure to Henry V, and she now researches film adaptations of Shakespeare’s work. She says, “Even if you’re not personally connecting with Shakespeare’s stories, it’s pretty easy to recognize the extent to which his work is still influencing popular culture,” pointing to films like Disney’s “The Lion King”—which “actually, when you think about it, has an awful lot to do with Hamlet”—and the famous 1968 film “Romeo and Juliet.”
“Most people today are encountering these plays through the film adaptations made from them,” says Maerz.
But unlike most people—at least most people in her line of work—Maerz won’t call the plays in Shakespeare’s First Folio “universal”: “To a really large extent, I don’t believe in the capital-U Universalism that everybody talks about. These plays are incredibly time-bound documents in their way, responding to a very particular historical moment and method of writing and performing plays.”
So then why are we still talking about Shakespeare in 2016? “It’s about the strong storytelling. Humans have been craving stories to organize our existence, to entertain us, to make us feel somehow connected to one another and the world around us for as long as we have evidence. We’ve organized our experience around stories and, whether or not they’re universal, many of Shakespeare’s are compelling as all get-out.”
Maerz pauses. Then, she smiles and says, “Shakespeare was really just an incredible storyteller.”