Shakespeare in the Narrative Past
The standard narrative tense for both the living and the dead is the simple past, with the past perfect placing an event or state further in the past compared to narrated time:
The Merchant of Venice was probably written in either 1596 or 1597, after Shakespeare had written such plays as Romeo and Juliet and Richard III, but before he penned the great tragedies of his later years.
In any discussion of Shakespeare’s life and works, then, one would normally see him talked about in past tenses — he did this after he had done that and while this was happening — not only because he is dead, but because this is how we normally narrate past events.
There are, however, four particular rhetorical situations where Shakespeare, though dead, can be the subject of present tense active verbs. One has to do with how people express general truths — or commonly held opinions presented as such — while the others have to do with how people read, discuss, or describe an encounter with history or literature as a present event.
Shakespeare in the Gnomic Present
For a moment, however, let’s talk about Sarah Bernhardt, the French actress who famously donned doublet, hose, and a rather generous pageboy wig to play Hamlet:
Bernhardt performed the role in Paris in 1899 and the following year in London and New York — in French — to great acclaim. Her fame — or notoriety — can be presented as an historical fact, as one would expect, in the past tense:
Sarah Bernhardt was perhaps the greatest actor the stage has ever known. Cocteau, Gielgud and Lawrence all adored her.
A century ago, Sarah Bernhardt was the world's most controversial actress.
That Sarah Bernhardt was the most famous actress of her day can also be expressed as a general truth using the present tense:
Sarah Bernhardt is the most famous actress of the late nineteenth century stage. Celebrated by an emerging and very vocal group of young female workers and artisans in her native Paris in the late 1860s and the 1870s called “les saradoteurs,” she went on to become the most popular actress of her generation in Europe, North America, and Australia.
Sarah Bernhardt is one of the most reknown and famous dramatic theatre actresses of the 19th and 20th century. She ran her own theatre at Paris (Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt, since 1899) and appeared in many classic plays like "La Dame aux Camélias", "Tosca", "Hamlet", "Macbeth", "Cléopatra", "Phèdre", "Fedora", "Medée"and "Dalila". Her performances led her all around on Europe's and America's theatre stages.
Bernhardt is famous in the present tense just as “Water boils at sea level at 100°C” or “A rolling stone gathers no moss” do their boiling or gathering in the present tense. There is no reference to time: a statement of general truth simply is.
Notice, too, that after these writers state a commonly held opinion of Sarah Bernhardt as a general truth, they immediately revert to the standard narrative tense, the simple past.
This use of the present tense is called the gnomic present. Gnomic here has nothing to do with garden statuary of questionable taste, but gnome, as Random House defines it, as ‘a short, pithy expression of a general truth; aphorism.’ Since such expressions — see the rolling stone — are often couched in the present tense, the term came to be applied not just to aphorisms, but to any statement expressing a general truth in the present tense.
And that brings us to Shakespeare is:
William Shakespeare is the most famous playwright of all time. He lived in Stratford-upon-Avon during the reign of Queen Elizabeth.
Shakespeare is the most famous playwright of all time, and Doyle is the ingenious creator of the legendary detective Sherlock Holmes.
“Shakespeare is the most famous playwright of all time” is the general truth. In the first example, the writer switches to the simple past to narrate a past event, while the second goes on with a general truth about Arthur Conan Doyle.
In this sentence, historical development, not merely Shakespeare’s fame, is topical:
Shakespeare was the most popular dramatist of his age. However, his early works did not match the artistic quality of Marlowe's dramas. If he had died on the same year than Marlowe, in 1593, today he perhaps would be considered a minor poet.
Since the writer wants to point out that Shakespeare’s fame — as historic fact — rests on his mature works, the gnomic present would be out of place, especially if history had turned out differently.
Shakespeare in the Historical Present
The historical present switches the standard narrative tense from simple past to simple present. This is a quite common technique in chronicles, chronologies, or timelines where dates or years, either as list, headings, or integrated into a narrative, provide a temporal framework in which events take place — in the present tense:
1582: Shakespeare marries Anne Hathaway
1583: Shakespeare’s first child, Susanna, is born
1585: Shakespeare’s twins, Judith and Hamnet, are born
1592: Shakespeare is first alluded to as a playwright, in Greene’s Groates-worth of Wit
1593: Shakespeare’s first printed poem, Venus and Adonis, appears
1594: Shakespeare’s first printed play, Titus Andronicus, appears
The historical present invites readers to imagine themselves as eyewitnesses to a series of events, while the timeline format is both concise and far more entertaining than a short biography in the past tense.
Shakespeare in the Literary Present
When narrating the events depicted in a literary work or painting, the writer often chooses to do so in the present tense.
In Richard III, Shakespeare presents a strong argument—intentionally or unintentionally—against capital punishment, for Clarence and others receive death sentences based on little or no evidence of wrongdoing against the state.
In his soliloquies, asides, and short discourses, Richard gleefully announces his evil intentions and reinforces the paradox that guides his behavior—it's good to be bad. His frequent revelations of the crimes he plans and the delight he takes in committing them resemble leitmotivs in an opera… His running commentary generally intrigues audiences and sometimes even amuses them after the manner of crafty villains that people horror films.
This use of the present tense is called the literary present, differing from the historical present in that the events described are not based on an historical narrative — though historiography produces narrative, purportedly non-fictional literary works — but works more commonly perceived as literature: plays, poetry, novels, etc., though these may be based on historical events.
Descriptions of works of visual art are also frequently described in the present tense, because the act of viewing, like the act of reading, can be a now event. One would likely describe the photograph of Sarah Bernhard in the simple present or present progressive: “The actress holds/is holding a human skull, she is dressed …”
Shakespeare in the Dialogical Present?
Another use of the literary present tied to the act of reading rests on the artifice that the world of ideas is a timeless place where all thinkers, living or dead, have a voice and may speak to each other as well as to the reader. Thus Shakespeare can “make a strong argument” to readers today without metaphysical aid by a writer giving him a contemporary voice. And scholars writing about the Bard can say, “As Shakespeare writes in Macbeth…” or “Gielgud explains his approach to Hamlet …”
I find this technique different enough from treating the action of Richard III as a present tense narrative that, like Shakespeare's newly found opposition to the death penalty speaking to today, the latter use should be called the dialogical present, especially since in academic contexts it give voice less to literary figures than the scholars who talk about them. As the Chicago Manual of Style points out, using this convention is a matter of choice, but it is frequently used in academic articles or monographs in a wide variety of fields.
A particularly interesting example of this convention involves not Shakespeare, but Dryden and Shelley:
What is uncommon, then, is not merely the ideal meaning which Dryden has given to Nature: but the meaning which he now gives to the inward, human nature. Dryden sees human nature not as the sum of acts and conduct, nor as those 'pains and pleasures of his species' which Shelley saw. He sees a greater link between men. — J. Bronowski, The Poet's Defence, 2015, 101.
Dryden, the subject of the monograph where this sentence is found, speaks in the present tense, but Shelley, born almost a century after Dryden’s death, merely saw something in the narrative past. Maintaining the fiction would suggest “as Shelley would/will see,” but since Shelley’s thoughts on human nature only serve as a contrast to Dryden’s, the author relegates him to the — not topical — narrative past.
Shakespeare’s fame can be reframed as a general truth as immutable and uncontroversial as “the sun sets, the moon rises.” One can present the events of his life as an historical narrative in past tenses or in present tenses in a timeline. Since his poetic and dramatic works have survived him, readers and critics can encounter those works as present tense events and depict them as such. He can also be given a voice in modern dialogues in which he likely didn’t engage while he was living by creating a timeless, fictional place where he still has something to say.