William Shakespeare (April 23, 1564-April 23, 1616) is the subject of intensified attention this weekend in his birthplace Stratford, England, and the rest of the world will take notice this week Tuesday, because April 23 will mark the celebration of Shakespeare’s birthday.
As usual, the residents, institutions and visitors in the town of Stratford (Stratford-upon-Avon because it developed on the banks of the River Avon) in the County of Warwickshire are making a great fuss. Central Stratford is, under normal circumstances, quite a busy town right through the year because it is a tourist centre with several tourism-related attractions. But it explodes this weekend as the host of a grand festival to celebrate the famous anniversary.
This festival takes place on April 20-21, as is customary, the closest weekend to the 23rd, while around the world the main focus is on the day itself. People dress in Elizabethan clothes as well as costumes representing characters from Shakespearean plays. There are many ceremonies involving the officials of the town, including even the headmaster of the grammar school that Shakespeare attended. Multitudes of tourists are expected to flock to the festivities, which include music and the theatres which are working over-time. There are re-creations of the Elizabethan period including the pubs which, of course, will be very merry.
The Royal Shakespeare Company hosts workshops, exhibitions and other activities that started on April 20. The Company performs their special birthday production at 7.30 pm in The Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. This year’s featured play is one of his famous comedies As You Like It. The BBC teams up with the RSC to present ‘Shakespeare Unlocked’ – actors and directors performing from his most widely studied plays.
London, where the ‘Bard’ built his career in the theatre, gets into the act with several events between today and Tuesday, including comedy performances at the Globe Playhouse. That theatre hosts exhibitions, activities in the afternoon and midnight performances. There are guided walks around what is advertised as “historic London” with actors in costume performing Shakespearean sonnets and speeches from his plays. It gets extremely commercial with Prospero, the celebrated hero of The Tempest (who was a magician) performing magic tricks. Tickets for most of these events were sold out long ago.
Even outside of this extended birthday party Stratford is busy. Shakespeare is big business in his hometown, in London, and indeed, everywhere else because he is celebrated as the world’s greatest writer. He is to date the best playwright and poet of all time and particularly in the English language. More than 400 years after he wrote them his plays are sold-out material and have built a still growing cultural industry. Long in advance tickets are sold out for the plays performed at the Globe Theatre in London. You have to reserve a place very early to get seats in the Swan Theatre or in The Other Place in Stratford.
There is a long stretch along the West Bank of the river in the centre of the town that is a teeming virtual shrine and museum. It is where the theatres are, just a couple of streets away from each other. The riverside is revered with huge graceful swans swimming about. The stretch extends to where the streets and buildings are preserved reflecting the Elizabethan style and architecture. There is a literal Shakespeare Village where people pay a fee to enter to see the dramatist’s house, where he was born, his bed, his desk and the furniture from the school he attended. Dozens of shops sell souvenirs.
There are many very good reasons why this writer has earned the attention he is getting 449 years after he was born. They arise from his decided and documented achievements as a playwright, poet, actor, director and theatre entrepreneur. While the most important cornerstones of his life and career are documented and carefully reconstructed from registry, court, literary and theatre records, there are many anecdotes and unconfirmed personal details. The documented facts are that his parents were John Shakespeare a successful and prosperous leather merchant and high official of the municipality, and his wife Mary Arden of “high birth” being a daughter of “the gentry.” He got married at age 18 to Anne Hathaway who was older than he was in a ceremony that was hastened because she was pregnant.
He joined the theatre industry in London (date unknown) and by 1591 was a very well-known actor and playwright. He became part owner of the theatre company the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, later the King’s Men. He was associated with the Swan Theatre in 1596 and built the Globe Playhouse in 1599. His was a highly successful career. He later returned to Stratford-upon-Avon a prosperous man able to buy back all his family had lost when John Shakespeare fell from prosperity. This included the Shakespeare Coat of Arms, usually a symbol of an affluent and highly placed family.
Today he is honoured by the number of theatres that exist in his tradition. In Stratford The Swan is named after the one built in 1596 in which he performed. The Royal Shakespeare Company built The Royal Shakespeare Theatre in the town recently to replace the original house of that name built in 1932. Other Shakespeare playhouses in his hometown include The Other Place, The Court-yard and The Shakespeare Institute. The Globe was built in London as a replica of the original house built in 1599 at a location very close to the original spot. It uses a thrust stage and reproduces all other aspects of the design, so that going to see a play there is like being in the Elizabethan theatre. It is said that bricks excavated from the original site were used in the ‘reconstruction.’ Small pieces of these bricks are on sale as memorabilia.
The BBC celebration is partly about “how one man captured so much about what it means to be human.” And that is one important reason for his prominence, why his work survives and remains relevant and why he is the best of all time. Shakespeare’s cynical character Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra, who is the conscience of the play, says of Cleopatra: “age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.” The dramatist could have used those same words to describe his own work.
He was extremely prolific, having published 37 plays, and a 38th named Sir Thomas More is listed by editor Charles Janson Sisson as “part authorship”
by Shakespeare along with a number of other contributors including playwright Thomas Dekker, one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries. He also published more than 150 sonnets and five long poems. Dekker might have written as many plays but they are hardly remembered today, nor did they enjoy the same attention as Shakespeare after the Restoration. Other more highly regarded contemporaries such as the university men or “university wits” like Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe or Thomas Kyd are still revered, and Marlowe is still admired as a genius. But none of them had the range and “infinite variety” of Shakespeare whose plays cover tragedies, comedies, history plays, Roman plays and “Problem Plays” (that are not very easily categorised).
In addition, Shakespeare’s fame and reputation are enhanced by his innovation and originality. During his time it was common practice for writers to draw from and use the works of others, and all the dramatists crafted plays from various sources. Marlowe, Kyd and Shakespeare all took stories and plots from other sources. But they were able to make these their own in the way they used them, and Shakespeare is particularly known from turning these sources into almost entirely new material.
Also they wrote in the long Renaissance period and the models that were popular and conventional were those Aristotelian types from the Greek and Roman classical era. However, a category of work emerged to be called Shakespearean Comedy and Shakespearean Tragedy, because of the way the Bard of Avon made these forms his own. He was never satisfied with the Aristotelian models and broke many of the conventions to shape drama that was not found in the work of others and could only be attributed to him.
It was the same with his poetry. Another reason for his unmatched and timeless reputation is the same inventiveness with which he stamped his authority on the poetic conventions. Again, it was the practice of all, including the best poets to use existing conventional forms such as the sonnet and such preoccupations as the Courtly Love tradition. Yet he took the English sonnet developed by Thomas Wyatt and Philip Sydney and created the Shakespearean sonnet. Once more that was because of the way he stamped his authority upon it and crafted it in unique ways.
The way in which as “one man” he “captured so much of what it means to be “human” accounts for much of his greatness and why he is immortal. But the range of his preoccupations and his contributions to thoughts and issues is vast. One can merely bullet-point a few examples such as his contribution to studies in post-colonialism through the comedy The Tempest with its discourse on colonialism, usurpation and conquest, masters and servants. That is only one of his many archetypes. He treats race, racism and “otherness” in Othello and Timon of Athens, attitudes to minorities in The Merchant of Venice, and many other of his works have inspired continuing discourse and inspired other works because of the way he treats large, important and ageless human issues.
He is perhaps the most quoted and quotable writer. Several idiomatic sayings, words of wisdom and phrases quoted from him have been so often used they are now clichés. Several of them and many coined words which became part of the English language were taken from his plays. That is an example of the great influence the Bard of Avon has had upon the world. It gives yet another indication of why such a great fuss is being made over his birthday.