Shakespeare: Four Hundred and Fifty Years On

by Laura Burden

It is, probably, the anniversary of the birth of William Shakespeare. The son of a glover, he was baptised in Stratford-upon-Avon on 26th April 1564, and custom suggests he was born on St George’s Day four and a half centuries ago. It is certainly the anniversary of his death: Shakespeare died a wealthy man on 23rd April 1616, reaching “journey’s end” with his burial in the chancel of the same church he was christened in.
In his paean to Shakespeare at the start of the First Folio, Ben Jonson famously addressed the playwright’s memory in glowing terms, calling him “star of poets” and declaring that, “He was not of an age, but for all time!” One wonders how content Jonson would have been had he known that, today, he himself would often be defined in relation to the “Sweet Swan of Avon” who has become our national playwright and poet. Shakespeare’s language has imbued our own: when we come full circle, give the devil his due, vanish into thin air or declare the world to be our oyster, we are quoting “the Bard”. He is the only author named the National Curriculum to be compulsory in schools, and in 2013 our current Education Secretary, Michael Gove, announced that his work “would be at the heart of the new curriculum” – within two years, children in non-independent schools in years 7-9 will have to study two plays rather than just one. Stratford-upon-Avon is now a shrine for “bardolatry,” with nearly 6 million visitors a year coming just for the sake of proximity to the great man.

We know very little about Shakespeare: most biographies of him maximise the significance of the documents still in existence that refer to him – mostly legal papers– and explore his language and cultural context. Some today regard him to have been a learned man; his contemporaries, it seems, did not – Ben Jonson claimed he “hadst small Latin and less Greek” and Robert Greene, mocking Shakespeare’s capacity to coin new words or to manipulate old ones, called him “an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers”. Yet his plays range around botany, law, medicine, mythology and military affairs. He seems to have had some knowledge of Italian, yet in The Tempest has Prospero put into a boat and exile in Milan – a city that in the early seventeenth century was a two days’ journey from the sea – and in The Taming of the Shrew places a sailmaker in landlocked Bergamo. 2,035 words owe their first recorded use to him. Greene called him a “Johannes Factotum”, a “Jack of all trades”, implying that his work lacked originality. Yet his plays, the majority of which do re-tell or re-interpret older stories, demonstrate linguistic agility and illustrate that there is art in arranging as well as in creating plots.
Shakespeare has been claimed by all: right wing traditionalists, seeking to establish traditional English identity; the gay community; rebels and political agitators and Romantics. Susan Shapiro described him as, “the noblest feminist of them all.” Since April 2012, and finishing this month, The Globe theatre has performed all 37 plays in 37 different languages (including Maori, Swahili, Hindi and Argentine Spanish). From today, The Globe will tour Hamlet in almost every country in the world and in all seven continents. Four and a half centuries on, his appeal remains liquid, fluid.
Why Shakespeare? Why not Jonson, Marlowe or Webster? Why, after all this time, when many of the nuances of his prose and verse have been lost and when we know so little about the man, is he still venerated? Why is it to Shakespeare that authors such as Tom Stoppard and Toni Morrison still turn to for inspiration for their own dramatic works? Why is it Shakespeare actors such as Helen Mirren, Lenny Henry and Maggie Smith appeared on television today to discuss?
The debate as to whether Shakespeare should be taught, and to whom, rages on. What his presence in the English (yes, English rather than British) curriculum over decades has achieved, however, is a concept of shared experience that transcends notions of shared heritage. Those who never open a book again past the age of sixteen are still left with a sense of the issues of ambition and temptation explored in Macbeth, or the consequences of rashness in love and anger in Romeo and Juliet. What Shakespeare still does for the world is to remind us of our common humanity. In his characters we see our propensity to be jealous, irrational, overly-trusting, irritable, loving, self-sacrificing and brave. Arguably using the character as his own mouthpiece, Shakespeare had Hamlet claim that art should “hold, as t’were, the mirror up to nature”; possibly, we retain our admiration for Shakespeare’s work because the mirror remains unclouded. “My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears.”
We know almost nothing about Shakespeare the man – Bill Bryson described historical pursuit of his early life as “occasional sightings” and his “lost years” as “very lost indeed.” To return to Ben Jonson, however, in a later writing he said of Shakespeare, “He was, indeed, honest, and of an open and free nature; had an excellent fancy, brave notions, and gentle expressions… There was ever more in him to be praised than to be pardoned.” Jonson applies adjectives that Shakespeare gave to some of his most memorable characters to the playwright himself. Through his versatile language and sympathetic imagination, Shakespeare created enduring images of the human heart.

See also Happy 450th Birthday, Christopher Marlowe

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