Shakespeare as the voice of the millennial

Ben Sutherland/Creative Commons

“You speak not as you think: it cannot be,” declares Hermia confidently, negating the possibility that her true love, Lysander, no longer shares feelings of mutual attraction.

I read this line with the same nonchalance and inattention as most college students would in languor of mid-afternoon lecture. Although usually enraptured by an open English discussion, at this hour I was too preoccupied with the subtle vibrations of my phone and a lingering list of unanswered emails in my inbox to focus on the musings of Shakespeare. I was having a difficult time relating to the scene at hand, trying to pick apart the dialogue to unearth some deeper significance beyond character flaws and poetic devices. It took time for me to realize that the lofty, verbose ramblings of a 453-year-old English guy might actually resonate with me and every other young adult.

Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” may not initially seem like a good reflection of the sentiments or social exchanges of the modern era. Many view his dramatism and poetic expression as unrealistic and appropriately theatrical — the polar opposite of the speed and efficiency of today’s commonly used modes of communication. However, underneath the old English vernacular lies a sense of passion and emotion in each voice that can also be found in the voices of young people today.

“It took time for me to realize that the lofty, verbose ramblings of a 453-year-old English guy might actually resonate with me and every other young adult.”

It wasn’t until my Shakespeare professor introduced me to the engaging and somewhat comical process of rephrasing Shakespearean dialogue in modern, colloquial English that I was able to draw any connection between the 10-pound collection of Shakespeare’s plays on my desk and the social stratagem of the average millennial. Suddenly Hermia’s confident claim was transformed into what any self-assured, slightly egocentric teen might say: “Are you serious right now? You can’t possibly be rejecting me.”

After acting out an intense scene, my professor often departs from the play and gets sidetracked, recounting an anecdote in his life. Only after his tangential story will he relate back to the quarrels and triumphs in Shakespeare’s works. The more I looked past the lofty, poetic language and antiquated phrases, the more clearly I saw the emotions and experiences they work to express.

Suddenly, I was able to relate to and understand the intentions and desires of Shakespeare’s many characters in a way I was never previously able to. Rosalind’s seemingly counterintuitive description of herself as “…effeminate, changeable, …proud, …shallow” in “As You Like It” was merely her way of saying, “I’m crazy emotional and all over the place but in an enticing, sexy way.” Or consider Helena’s response of, “O excellent!” to the powers of the love potion in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Her sarcastic exclamation could just as easily be replaced with, “Fantastic,” said in an exasperated tone.

One of the most enticing elements of Shakespeare’s plays is the complexity of emotions each character exudes. Whether they seek love or heroism, wealth or revenge, the characters are crafted with the insuppressible urge to express themselves. In the world of Shakespeare, this catharsis often takes the form of a sonnet or a soliloquy.

Today, many young adults find themselves facing a difficult time of division, challenge and choice. They are inspired by others or angered by injustice. All of this in a period of transition and maturation in their lives spurs a similar desire to engage in self-expression. Opinion blogs, art pieces, poetry slams, Instagram posts and student publications seem to embody the modern version of the Shakespearean sonnet.

Despite this connection between generations that are approximately 400 years apart, many are convinced there is a major rift in communication and perspective between today’s young adults and individuals of earlier generations. This is often attributed to the burgeoning of technological advancement in the past 20 years that resulted in the rapid adoption of faster, more efficient modes of communication. According to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center, 79% of Americans believe there is a drastic difference in perspective between older and younger adults.

Furthermore, many baby boomers claim that not only are millennials dangerously dependent on technology, but they are also appallingly entitled and narcissistic.  This belief is what inspired the somewhat infamous Time magazine article “Millenials: The Me Me Me Generation,” which triggered immediate backlash from masses of frustrated young adults. The article’s author Joel Stein claims that as a result of their upbringing, young people are often selfish and overconfident, with a dismal inability to empathize or intellectually understand others.

If this is the case — if we really are incapable of comprehending others both emotionally and intellectually — how are we expected to understand the themes and sentiments expressed in plays published almost 400 years ago?  If the communication gap between us and individuals 30 to 40 years senior to us is really so significant, what is it that allows us to relate with characters who are hundreds of years older than ourselves?

“It was the extraordinary realization that literature can dissolve this seemingly impenetrable barrier between generations that ultimately swayed me.”

This is a question I asked myself in the process of deciding whether to pursue the English major. When every title on my course reading list for the semester sounded like something that would receive a unanimous groan from my many of my peers, I wondered what it was that motivated me to read these works in their entirety and embark on the even more daunting task of attempting to understand them.

It was the extraordinary realization that literature can dissolve this seemingly impenetrable barrier between generations that ultimately swayed me. Literature can convey emotion and experience in a way that is universally understandable, regardless of the age of its audiences. Emotions seem to unite everyone by underlining that, despite surface-level differences, we are all human.

Millennials have especially embraced these emotional ties. Technology has made this generation far more aware of what is happening globally, allowing today’s youth to learn from others and be vocal on a broader scale. The current political climate is undeniably a tumultuous one, igniting both determination and distress in young people.  It encourages us to be introspective and consider our values — or in other words, think about ourselves and where we exist in a polarized political sphere. But it simultaneously encourages us to be more aware of others, to empathize and to act with compassion. Just as one tweet is bound to garner less likes than a widely trending hashtag in the internet realm, one voice gains power when accompanied by the voices of many others. The logic of unity transcends social media and becomes much of the basis behind the millennial perspective.

This trend is what often empowers young adults to express themselves with the same level of passion and intensity I see in the pages of Shakespeare’s plays. Regardless of the change in platform, modern communication and self-expression still originate from the same sense of humanity that unites us all. These emotions are timeless and bridge the gap between 400-year-old literature and today’s youth.

Contact Molly Nolan at [email protected].