There is almost nobody in existence who hasn’t heard the name William Shakespeare.
In any field, when there’s a discussion of the most influential practitioner, there is naturally a conflict of opinion. Outside of sports, metrics are hazy, and judgments are subjective.
And yet, when it comes to Shakespeare’s influence on the English language and storytelling, few that are intimately familiar with his work will argue against his immense significance.
His work has inspired the output of everyone from Charles Dickens and William Faulkner to Voltaire and Sigmund Freud. Four centuries after his death, classrooms across the globe continue to study his plays and poems as a mandatory part of their curriculum.
That said, while this early education dissects the what and the why behind the way his work came to be, rarely does it dive deeper into the how of what he managed to accomplish.
Shakespeare was a master at harnessing the power of perhaps the most potent capability of the human mind – the imagination. To shift the landscape of how we interact with narratives at such a large scale, he had to bring into circulation things that didn’t previously exist.
We’re often preached the virtue of knowledge and creativity, but it’s far less common for us to dive into the source of that knowledge and creativity. We can dissect Shakespeare’s impact to break down the true power of our imagination by:
• Understanding how storytellers shape perception
• Realizing how reality is molded with new ideas
• Knowing that the future begins as a narrative
The imagination is where it all starts, and those who understand it can literally shape reality.
Understand That Storytellers Shape Perception
As the world continues to advance, more and more of it will be dominated by inorganic life forms. Even now, computers control and influence much of what we do on a daily basis.
This means that, in many ways, the world will get more complex. That’s primarily been the trend as the rate of technological advancement has continued to increase. We live on a planet far different from the one on which our ancestors were concerned with harvesting wheat.
Naturally, this complexity is inherently hard to understand, so our brain takes shortcuts to make sense of it. One of the ways that it does so is by taking something messy and random and internalizing it as a story. That generally makes the complexity more accessible.
Statistician and author Nassim Taleb calls this the narrative fallacy, and it reflects our mind’s tendency to weave different facts into a simple narrative so that it can easily connect things. As such, stories are the default mode through which we order our observations of reality.1
This can be both good and bad depending on the context, but it explains why it’s so easy for the media to influence the behavior of so many people, and it also explains how certain books and movies become such an ingrained part of cultures.
There are people who argue that Shakespeare invented our modern concept of love. For example, prior to Romiet and Juliet, romance wasn’t considered a worthy topic for a tragedy. It wasn’t talked about or written about with as much weight or quantity as it is today.2
With that in mind, it’s not hard to see what the imagination can do. If we primarily understand complexity through narratives, then those who imagine inspire the world’s outlook.
The quality of the story you tell about yourself influences how people see you, the quality of the story a CEO tells about their company in large part inspires customer loyalty, and the quality of the story you read determines whether or not you choose to buy into it.
Our imagination’s secret weapon is in the stories it tells, and these stories shape everything.
Realize That Reality Can be Molded With New Ideas
Much of what we perceive as real is a figment of our collective imagination. We often don’t realize this because there’s little visible, practical use in clarifying that distinction.
In his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, historian Yuval Noah Harari argues that based on our current knowledge, it appears that what primarily differentiates us from other animals is our ability to imagine things and then collectively treat them as a part of reality.
It’s what helps us build bigger tribes, it’s what forms cultures, and it’s what creates big ideas.
In philosophy, this is known as intersubjectivity. A few examples of things that exist through our intersubjective perception include corporations, ideologies, and even ethical systems.
None of these things are real. There is nothing inherently concrete about Google or the idea of capitalism. They’re only real because somebody imagined them, we collectively choose to believe in them, and we have systems that act in accordance with these beliefs.
Take Shakespeare. Stories certainly existed far before he came along, but his influence on the complex dimensionality of characters and on how plots develop continue to be felt today.
We very much take for granted the fact that there is no law of nature that postulates that stories should abide by an elementary set of rules. We just expect them to, and we treat that expectation as something quite concrete. We rarely consider that before Shakespeare created these general guidelines through his own work that they simply didn’t exist.
The imagination knows few bounds, and for the most part, unless something lies beyond the possibilities of our scientific laws, there is no reason we can’t build some sort of a concrete reality based on our own imagination if we can get others to buy into our supporting systems.
Existing rules and ideas are valuable, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t create your own.
Know That the Future Begins as a Narrative
By introducing multi-dimensional characters and their plotlines, Shakspeare did something more than just create compelling stories. He also introduced us to the field of psychology.
In many ways, his characters represent archetypes that could be used to construct our understanding of human nature. A lot of what we have now confirmed with the help of the scientific method had already been touched on and expanded through his work.
Of course, he wasn’t necessarily always right and nor did he formally introduce new ideas, but it isn’t a stretch to say that, in his own way, he was one of the world’s first psychologists.3
This connection between our imagination, narratives, and knowledge goes even deeper when we consider the science fiction genre of literature and the influence it has on reality.
One thing that most of us don’t intuitively realize, or at least think about too much, is the fact that the future isn’t predetermined. Technology doesn’t advance by itself, and the direction it takes isn’t set in stone. At any point, there are a number of ways that we can innovate.
It isn’t a coincidence that many of the futuristic concepts and capabilities we see in the science fiction genre come to exist in reality a few decades after they have been introduced.
Imagination is the mother of discovery. Before we push civilization forward in any number of ways, we have to first decide how we want the future to look. We have to use the narratives that we have either been exposed to or we have to use our own imagination to choose what’s worth bringing into the realm of possibility.
This is as true for building a flying car as it is for personal endeavors. We often reason by building on what we already know. Sometimes, it’s better to imagine and then fill in the gaps.
All You Need to Know
An active imagination is a secret weapon far more potent than any other trick of our brain. It’s where both knowledge and creativity find their roots, and it’s what broadens possibility.
Shakespeare is the quintessential artist. Many of us are exposed to his work at an age when we can’t fully appreciate it. Worse yet, we talk about his style and his influence, but we rarely credit his incredible imagination. That’s unfortunate because there’s a lot we can learn.
Here are three key things to understand about the way our mind interacts with reality:
I. Storytellers shape perception. The world is incalculably complex, and we understand much of it in the form of a narrative. That’s why the media and other communication systems, such as books and movies, so heavily shape the way we behave. Those who can use their imagination to tell these stories have immense influence.
II. Reality is built on imagined ideas. A lot of the things we intuitively think of as real, such as corporations and ideologies, are parts of our collective imagination. They appear real because we’ve chosen to believe in them, and we have built supporting systems that reinforce this belief. You can make your own rules in the same way.
III. The future begins as a narrative. We rarely appreciate the fact that the advances made by society don’t actually push themselves forward. Nothing is predetermined. It all begins in the mind, and from there, we direct ourselves onto a path towards whatever lies ahead. There is a reason that science fiction doesn’t remain fiction. Discoveries are made by looking ahead and then reasoning our way backward.
There are many ways to use this powerful tool. Once you know the difference between what is real and what isn’t, and how that difference bears fruit, it’s entirely possible to mold reality.
Everything around us began as a figment of somebody’s imagination. You can build on it.
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