Few people can get through high school English class — or life, really — without hearing of the beautiful words written by William Shakespeare.
Shakespeare’s plays and poems are written into the fabric of human consciousness and each of our worldviews, even though we may not even realize it. Shakespeare lives all around us, from sayings like “wild goose chase” and “tough love” to the constant renderings of his plays on high school and Broadway stages alike.
Whether it be the young, star-crossed lovers Romeo & Juliet or the powerful soldier Macbeth, Shakespeare’s tragedies leave countless takeaways for his readers.
Here are 5 lessons we’ve learned from some of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies.
Who was William Shakespeare?
William Shakespeare, who lived from 1564 to 1616, is widely considered to be the most famous and important playwright, poet, and writer of all time.
Also known as The Bard, Shakespeare grew up in Stratford-upon-Avon to become a prolific playwright and figure in London’s theatre scene.
From acting to writing, Shakespeare’s works became widely known during his life — making him an immense fortune and leaving him one of the most famed literary heroes to ever exist.
Hundreds of years later, Shakespeare’s works continue to live on in his sonnets, his plays, movies, and a culture that won’t ever forget about him.
“Two households, both alike in dignity
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.”Romeo & Juliet: Nothing good can come of hate.
One of Shakespeare’s most famous plays is also one of his most truly devastating, telling the story of star-crossed teenagers who are forbidden from loving each other due to an old family feud between their families, the Capulets and the Montagues.
In the tragic play, Romeo and Juliet eventually both meet their downfalls once they realize that their parents will never honor the love they feel for one another.
The Prince of Verona warns against this at the beginning of the play, telling the readers that an ancient grudge will be the undoing of the innocent young lovers.
After Romeo & Juliet meet their demise, he laments that “there was never a story of more woe/than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”
In this tragedy, the reader sees the rot that builds when old and worthless fights continue on into the future.
By hating their enemies so deeply, the Montagues and Capulets both lost their precious children — and for no valid, real reason at all. In this play, Shakespeare teaches his readers that nothing but devastation can come from deeply rooted hate.
“Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.”Julius Caesar: Be careful with how you choose to wield your power.
In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, we see as politics overtake humanity in more ways than one. Friendship, violence, betrayal, and power dynamics are at play when Brutus decides to join in on a conspiracy to overthrow and kill his friend, Julius Caesar.
This tragedy was a political commentary on the part of Shakespeare, and it is a very clear warning to the readers that people can truly do evil things in the name of the country.
However, on the other hand, Julius Caesar also tells us a remarkable lesson — that you must be careful how you wield your power when you’re in leadership because people will always be ready for you to fall.
From arrogance to anger to aggression, leadership can quite often be nuanced and dangerous.
“To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ‘tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub.”Hamlet: With vengeance often comes undoing.
Hamlet is one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays and tragedies, and is a multifaceted story stained with blood, fear, revenge, sadness, and broken family ties.
While there are truly layers of lessons buried deep in the story, one stands out in particular: vengeance often does no one any favors, no matter how fair it may be or how necessary it may seem.
In Hamlet, we watch the title character’s life fall apart on every level. His uncle and mother conspire to kill his father, his life is full of agony, and his friends don’t really care about him.
We watch, listen, and read as Hamlet wrestles with whether or not to avenge the death of his father — and, by the end, everyone in the play (and everyone who has once meant something to Hamlet) is dead.
While you’d be hard-pressed not to find a myriad of lessons and stories baked into the tale, Shakespeare leaves us with one particular reminder: ugliness breeds ugliness, hate breeds hate, and vengeance breeds destruction.
“O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-ey’d monster, which doth mock
The meat it feeds on. That cuckold lives in bliss,
Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger:
But O, what damnèd minutes tells he o’er
Who dotes, yet doubts, suspects, yet strongly loves!”Othello: Resentment and greed become rot.
Shakespeare’s Othello tells the story of Venetian general Othello and his sneaky (though trusted) friend and officer, Iago. We watch as jealousy, racism, loyalty, and resentment come to play a part on every level in the story when the Black Othello secretly marries the white Desdemona (much to her father’s dismay).
Iago’s jealousy and resentment towards Othello for a myriad of things — including being passed over for a higher rank that causes him to convince Othello that his wife is cheating on him, which leads to a murder, intense grief, and a suicide.
The tragedy of Othello is an early critique of racism and is an excellent showing of what happens when resentment wins out.
As you read, you watch someone who was once called a friend become consumed by jealousy that explodes — a jealousy that rots and rots until it causes death.
Shakespeare’s smart words are wildly modern for his time, showing how racism can be used to manipulate and also showing how important it is to have people you truly trust.
“To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”Macbeth: Danger and darkness lie in deep ambition.
The story of Macbeth is one rife with lessons from Shakespeare and begins when Macbeth is visited by witches who tell him that he’ll soon be king.
He’s consumed totally by ambition and the promise of power, killing to overthrow the current ruler and soon finding himself (along with his wife) living in a civil war soaked in blood, fear, and his own wrath.
In this play, ambition wins out against every grain of humanity. The premise of power completely overtakes the once decent Macbeth and his wife Lady Macbeth — and, while they get it, nothing but darkness and death lay beyond it.
Macbeth eventually realizes that he had misunderstood the witches’ words, but his life is in tatters regardless. In Macbeth, we see what is probably the most obvious of Shakespeare’s written-in lessons: evil, consuming ambition leads to telltale destruction.
The Bard, in his many words, stories, and plays, left quite the lesson books to his readers and watchers. In every single play and poem Shakespeare wrote, you’ll soon find an underlying lesson and moral meant to be digested and learned.
Shakespeare’s commentary, while sometimes dark and other times hilarious, is always nuanced and layered in a way that only he could craft.
What’s your favorite Shakespearean lesson? We’d love to hear it, whether you comment below or shout us out on social media. From greed to love to friendship, everyone can gather something different.
It’s a prime example of Shakespeare’s genius, and it shows us all how lasting his works will always be.