4 Times Shakespeare Influenced People Who Changed the World

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May 28, 2024
4 Times Shakespeare Influenced People Who Changed the World
Jamie Litton

Shakespeare’s influence on our modern world is impossible to miss, and anyone with even a rough understanding of Shakespearean history knows how profound an effect his work has had on almost every aspect of western culture. However, we tend to forget how other influential people have been shaped by Shakespeare in formative ways. Here are just four examples of history-makers whose lives and works were altered by their relationship with a Shakespearean play.  

1. Adam Smith and Macbeth

Adam Smith is often referred to as the father of economics, as he was the first well-known thinker to describe the distribution of wealth based on observable and measurable societal forces, rather than the will of God. Working in the mid-18th century, Smith was a Shakespearean before it was cool, lecturing on Shakespeare at Glasgow university in Scotland at a time when the Bard’s works were considered scandalous and disreputable. One of Smith’s most famous economic theories borrows directly from the play Macbeth. First appearing in Smith’s book, The Wealth of Nations, the phrase “invisible hand” is used to discuss a free-market economy that would theoretically regulate itself according to the needs and interests of individuals. Considering Smith's love of Shakespeare, it seems no coincidence that Macbeth himself uses the phrase, saying,

“And with thy bloody and invisible hand

Cancel and tear to pieces that great bond

Which keeps me pale!”-Act 3, Scene 2

The “invisible hand” is not the only time Adam Smith drew inspiration from Shakespeare to communicate his theories. When discussing the division of labor, Smith compared different kinds of people to breeds of dogs, as does Shakespeare in Act 3, Scene 1 of Macbeth. An interesting choice, but definitely one that was inspired by the Bard.

2. Karl Marx and Timon of Athens 

It could be said that Karl Marx has had more of an impact on the world than any other modern thinker, and it turns out that the philosopher was a fan of Shakespeare. In the section of his notes posthumously titled “The Power of Money in Bourgeois Society” and eventually published in Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx writes, “Shakespeare excellently depicts the real nature of money.” Referencing Timon of Athens, Marx argues that Shakespeare’s work illustrates how money is capable of fulfilling our wildest dreams and destroying our lives simultaneously. Building on his foundational theory of alienation, Marx emphasizes the power of money with Shakespeare’s words,

“Gold? Yellow, glittering, precious gold? No, Gods,

I am no idle votarist!...

Thus much of this will make black white, foul fair,

Wrong, right, base noble, old young, coward valiant.”

Marx goes on to say, “Thus, what I am and am capable of is by no means determined by my individuality.” In a world that is perhaps still unready to heed Marx’s warnings about the destructive nature of wealth, Shakespeare adds weight to Marx’s famous commentary on alienation under capitalism.

3. John Wilkes Booth and Julius Caesar

John Wilkes Booth, Edwin Booth and Junius Booth, Jr. (from left to right) in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in 1864.All you American history buffs out there might already know that “Sic semper tyrannis!” were the words exclaimed by John Wilkes Booth moments after he assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. The Latin phrase is attributed to Marcus Junius Brutus, one of the assassins of Julius Caesar, and is translated as “Thus always to tyrants.”  While this fact might lead you to believe that Booth was a history buff himself, it turns out that Booth was inspired by a tense and twisted connection to Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar.

In a strange bit of real-life foreshadowing, John’s father was named Junius Brutus Booth, and worked as an accomplished Shakespearean actor. However, he only took one of his three sons under his wing as an acting protégé, causing John to grow bitter in his pursuit of fame. When his successful brother Edwin suggested that John and Junius Jr. join him on stage in 1864 for a production of Julius Caesar, John sensed an ulterior motive. Proving him right, Edwin never paid his brothers for the sold-out show, instead using the money to erect a statue of Shakespeare in Central Park that is still there today.

Adding to the fateful irony of it all, the show was interrupted by a fire set by Confederates, leading to a falling out between Edwin and John, the latter of whom supported the arson attack. Many believe that it was this unfortunate series of events that led John Wilkes Booth to plot his assassination of a beloved leader. Booth referenced the play in his final diary entry after the assassination, writing that he was being “hunted like a dog…For doing what Brutus was honored for.” (Julius Caesar 3.2 Performance)

4. Sigmund Freud and Hamlet

Often considered the father of modern psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud is in many ways responsible for how we think about human behavior today. One of his most famous and controversial theories, the Oedipus Complex, was named for the tragic Greek character who killed his father and married his mother. A lover of Shakespeare since he was a child, Freud defended his Oedipus Complex theory with an analysis of the character of Hamlet, pointing to Hamlet’s inability to avenge his father as a sign of his unconscious desire to have been the one to kill his father and marry his mother. Without Hamlet as inspiration, Freud’s theory may have never gotten off the ground—for better or worse. Watch our video “What the Critics Say” for more analysis regarding Hamlet’s inability to take action.