On Shakespeare’s birthday…

April 23, 2014

Well, I imagine you would expect me to have something to say on what is (probably) the Bard’s 450th birthday. I’m old enough to remember the celebrations of his 400th, and have the commemorative set of stamps that went with it, although I’m sure I hadn’t a clue who he actually was, at the time.

Ben Jonson said that Shakespeare was for all time, and he seems to be right. I can’t think of anyone else I’d put on the podium as the greatest Englishman that ever was. In some ways, this is now a self-fulfilling prophecy: there has been so much critical analysis, so much adulation, for so long, that it’s impossible to imagine him falling into obscurity in a few centuries. Although there are those who wonder what the story might have been if Christopher Marlowe hadn’t met such an untimely end.

Shakespeare wrote about themes that are always going to be with us: ambition, young love, repressive parents, sexual jealousy, incompetent rulers… I could go on. What, to me, is different, is his exploration of these issues: he recognises the complexity of human beings, the fallibility of human beings, and their vulnerability, in so many ways, and, most importantly, he never suggests that there are easy solutions to our problems, because he knew there were none. So his characters find no answers to their dilemmas, and nor do we.

But… this makes Shakespeare sound like some psychologist, or therapist. He did far more, through his mastery of the stage, the dramatic, and the wonderful language that we have; he grips his audience anew every time we see a play; his language is fresh, powerful, playful. And, he left his plays open to re-interpretation, re-exploration, so that every age can find something new.

As a teacher, I enjoyed some of my happiest moments passing on the wonders of Shakespeare to a new generation.

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