Today marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. One certainly doesn’t “celebrate” the deaths of revered figures so much as “commemorate” or “observe.” With Shakespeare, there’s a lot to commemorate.
There are plenty of ways to mark the day. If you go over to BBC.com, there’s round-the-clock programming of, by and about Shakespeare. It certainly can’t entirely be coincidence that the President of the U.S. is paying a visit to Great Britain right now. If there’s anyone who can outshine kings, queens, heads of state and even reality TV celebrities, it’s the Bard. Why not be there to bask in the glow?
Shakespeare was a star in his own day, and had significant success as a playwright and poet. He created unforgettable characters, told clever, fascinating, wrenching and memorable stories that featured plenty of plot twists, intrigue, blood and gore and hilariously funny stuff, too. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen “Twelfth Night,” but the actor portraying Malvolio always gets that moment to ham up the poor dope’s being duped into showing off those yellow cross-gartered stockings. Big yucks from the house.
Running through all his work, though, is the singular flame of Shakespeare’s language. There has never been another like him.
Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out brief candle.
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
In that one soliloquy from Macbeth (Macbeth has just learned of the death of Lady Macbeth, by the way, so things are not very happy in Dunsinane), Shakespeare provided a long string of authors the titles for their books, lyricists with songs, and phrases that are instantly recognizable by tens of millions of people around the world. His work is replete with similarly powerful passages that are milestones of literature.
Shakespeare is still our most eloquent ambassador for the power of the English language. He invented a big chunk of it, coining somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 new words (accounts vary), and composing what he wrote in a way that sets him apart from all other masters of expression. More than a few writers of the past have learned English specifically so that they could read Shakespeare without relying on translations, including one of the masters of French prose, Marcel Proust.
The best way to “get” Shakespeare is to see his work performed. So far as I recall, the first two professional theater productions I attended, both in my final year of high school, were “A Comedy of Errors,” and a memorable takeoff on Shakespeare by a modern master, Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.” The inimitable Kathryn Drake, our English teacher, took us to see them. Since then, I’ve seen dozens of stage productions of Shakespeare plays, and I couldn’t begin to count the number of film adaptations I’ve seen (and you’ve probably had the same experience). I’ve seen Shakespeare in Elizabethan period costume, Victorian, Edwardian, and modern; set to Renaissance music or rock ‘n roll and performed on a bare stage and set in a bizarre gothic mansion.
Hearing that language spoken aloud is the best way to experience it. After all, it’s what Shakespeare had in mind when he wrote it. Delivering Shakespeare effectively from the stage is one of an actor’s defining opportunities. For those of us on the benches, it can be a stern challenge; actors have to speak fast to cram one of those plays into two hours (forget “Hamlet;” you’re in for at least three hours), and we have to pay attention, no woolgathering.
I’m always struck by the opening lines of “Twelfth Night.” Duke Orsino enters or, in some productions, is discovered seated onstage, listening to a musician. He’s lovelorn for Olivia, who’s a bit of a pill, and Orsino is worn out with trying to make a dent in her obstinate refusal to have anything to do with him (or practically anything else).
If music be the food of love, play on,
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
That strain again. It had a dying fall;
We have to pay sharp attention to every line of the plays to catch ol’ Bill’s ironic way of working: in this case, having Orsino let us know how exhausted he is by asking to be so overly inspired with love that he’ll simply tire of the whole business, and forget Olivia entirely.
For not just a few lines, but for the hours we watch and listen to Shakespeare, we live in a world created by some commoner with a decent but not distinguished education more than 400 years ago. That we can still inhabit that world is a happy thought.
© Brad Nixon 2016