Goethe argues that Shakespeare's work is revolutionary because it spans beyond the traditional structure and content to tackle political, social, and cultural issues:
“The first page I read made me a slave to Shakespeare for life. And when I had finished reading the first drama, I stood there like a man blind from birth whom a magic hand has all at once given light. I realized and felt intensely that my life was infinitely expanded” (163).
“I don’t know who first had the idea of putting historical-political spectacles on the stage...Whether or not the honor of being the originator falls to Shakespeare, it was he who raised this type of drama to a level that we must still take to be the highest, totally beyond the imagination of most. And so there is little chance that anyone will match, much less surpass him” (164).
“Shakespeare’s theater is a colorful gallery where the history of the world passes before our eyes on the invisible thread of time. The structure of his plays, in the accepted sense of the word, is no structure at all. Yet each revolves around an invisible point which no philosopher has discovered or defined and where the characteristic quality of our being, our presumed free will, collides with the inevitable course of the whole” (164-165).
“But I cry: Nature! Nature! Nothing is so like Nature as Shakespeare’s figures” (165).
“What noble philosophers have said about the world applies to Shakespeare too: What we call evil is only the other side of good; evil is necessary for good to exist and is part of the whole, just as the tropics must be torrid and Lapland frigid for there to be a temperature zone” (165).
Terence Hawkes, "By" in Meaning by Shakespeare
Hawkes examines various approaches to the study of Shakespeare. He emphasizes that while some scholars view Shakespeare's plays as having universal meaning, others argue that we give meaning to Shakespeare's plays based on political and social context:
“Here and now, Hamlet seems to say to Ophelia, this is where ‘meaning’ will be generated: at the point where The Murder of Gonzago turns into The Mousetrap” (3).
“We use [Shakespeare’s plays] to generate meaning. In the twentieth century, Shakespeare’s plays have become one of the central agencies through which our culture performs this operation. That is what they do, that is how they work, and that is what they are for. Shakespeare doesn’t mean: we mean by Shakespeare” (3).
At one point, Hamlet may have been simply an entertaining play by a British playwright. Now, however, through the field of English literature, it has become a lense for examining cultural and political phenomena (4).
“The idea that a play can and inevitably does take part in the affairs of a society requires an abandonment of the notion of the primacy or, in practical terms, of the existence of any ‘transcendental’ meaning located within it, able finally to subsume, surpass, or determine all others. It calls instead for a recognition of the degree to which all texts are contextualized by history. And that leads in the direction of what might be called a literary pragmatism: the notion that all texts have something in common with The Mousetrap. That is, they always ‘take part’ in historical milieux, whenever and however they are realized, either initially or subsequently” (6).
“We try to make Hamlet mean for our purposes now: others will try to make it mean differently then (or now)” (8).
The New Historicism or Cultural Materialism approach to Shakespeare focuses on universal truths that transcend cultural and historical contexts (9).
Some educationalists, including the Prince of Wales in a 1991 lecture in commemoration of Shakespeare's birthday, have argued that schools fail to thoroughly teach Shakespeare and that this is a problem because of its cultural and moral value. However, Hawkes proposes that "f
ew of the educationists who rushed to deny or confirm such deprivation bothered to consider that the very conditions the Prince despaired of - illiteracy, never having seen a Shakespeare play, never having read a word of the Bard - were perhaps part of the material context in which most Elizabethans lived, and that in themselves they helped to constitute fundamental aspects of the culture that made Shakespeare possible” (9-10).