IMAGE: Shakespeare by Pablo Lobato
Four hundred years ago Shakespeare died.
(Sorry if you’re hearing that for the first time. I should have warned you to sit down first.)
That is to say, on April 23, 1616, the man, William Shakespeare – who had already made his name as a wildly successful actor, poet, playwright, and producer – died.
That Shakespeare – the man – had grown from a glove maker’s son in Stratford-upon-Avon to running an entertainment empire in London. He had won the King as his patron. He owned property across the land. He was a father of three children (apparently with a son-in-law he hated), and had written a will that cryptically only left his wife, Anne Hathaway, their ‘second best’ bed (perhaps he still resented her performance in Bride Wars). That Shakespeare, the man, was buried in Stratford on April 25th.
But there is another William Shakespeare – the one that won’t die. The one that half-glances at us incredulously from that apocryphal black and white portrait on the cover of the First Folio. The one used to sell countless mugs and key chains and trinkets to tourists travelling through London. The one that appears as a zombie on The Simpson’s Halloween special. The one who met Doctor Who, and Blackadder, and who snogged Gwyneth Paltrow in a moustache. The one that is multiform. Eternal. That one is 450 year old and counting, and lives inside everyone who has some affection for his work.
That’s our Shakespeare. Yours. Mine.
Ernst Honigman, in a brief introduction to Shakespeare’s life for The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare makes note of the numerous times that people refer to the playwright as ‘our Shakespeare’. Understandably, Shakespeare’s friends and colleagues, John Heminges and Henry Condell, used the phrase in their posthumous printing of his plays, the First Folio of 1623. They were attempting to publish a definitive edition of the man’s collected works (at the time theatrical pieces were usually only printed as cheap, unofficial knock-offs), and claimed they were doing so in order to ‘keep the memory of so worthy a friend and fellow alive as was our Shakespeare’ (emphasis mine).
IMAGE: From the cover of the First Folio (1623)
But that kind of personal identification with the poet playwright didn’t end with those who knew and loved him in life. In the centuries since, his legacy, and the affection with which he is held, has expanded exponentially.
Ben Johnson wrote the poem ‘To The Memory of My Beloved, The Author, William Shakespeare’, becoming quite sentimental about his Shakespeare despite having hated the man’s guts while alive and frequently slagging him off as a talentless hack. (It is believed that Johnson was riddled with envy of Shakespeare’s skill while they were contemporaries, which is understandable, but the turnaround can still give you whiplash.)
It’s why the Romantic poets, a century and a half after his death, felt they had discovered a kindred spirit in his verse. It’s why Stephen Greenblatt’s captivating biography of Shakespeare, Will in the World, is quite open about using healthy dollops of imagination to spackle over the gaps in his exacting historical research. Why Germaine Greer’s book, Shakespeare’s Wife, uses even more speculation and presumption (despite being far less honest about it) to argue that Shakespeare’s career was indebted wholly to his wife, Ann Hathaway – a fact, Greer asserts, that has been systemically marginalised by a history of male biographers.
It’s also why people continue to foolishly squabble over Shakespeare’s ‘true’ identity, with conspiracy junkies falling over themselves to insist that their Shakespeare was forced to work in disguise and unrecognised in his time. Snobs would rather believe that their Shakespeare was an aristocrat like the Earl of Oxford rather than some preternaturally talented member of the lower classes; more ambitious guesses cite everyone from the already-dead Christopher Marlowe to Queen Elizabeth (who must have had great fun writing Richard II, a play she famously despised and that was used to try and inspire a revolution against her).
The point is, Shakespeare is many things to many people – the greatest dramatist who ever lived; England’s finest poet; a shrewd producer; a pseudonym; an actor; a closeted Catholic; a philosopher; a social critic; a feminist; a misogynist; a lover of cryptic codes; on into infinity – and the reason that he can remain equally as ambiguous as he is treasured is because we largely only have access to him through his plays.
And those plays! Plays that never seem to age. Plays that have been effortlessly restaged and reinvented in every new generation.
And yes, his plays exhibit a breadth of divergent subject matter – tragedy, comedy, romance, Roman, Greek and English history, myth, social satire, farce, fantasy – and a slew of characters from every walk of life – monarchs, maids, and madmen; princes and prostitutes; lords, ladies, and lawmen, soldiers, servants, senators, and soothsayers; tyrants and tweens; washed up drunks, clergymen, criminals, cross dressers, cads, clowns (not scary clowns), and everything in between, but what makes them eternal is their interest in universal human emotions: young lust; regret; unbridled fury; betrayal; the fear that we are not truly loved; hesitation; wonder; jealousy; the impulse to endlessly list things.
His work has endured for centuries not because a bunch of musty scholars declared that these plays were (dun dun dunnnnnnnnnnn!!!) IMPORTANT, that society was obliged to inflict them on every student in the western world to warn them how loathsome antiquated puns can be. They are works that insist themselves upon their audience exactly because they remain so fresh, so urgent. We recognise the same impulses and temptation in ourselves, feel as if each work had been written by the author for us at this very moment.
IMAGE: William Shakespeare’s Plays by John Gilbert (1849)
I’m not sure what Shakespeare is to me. I know that I adore what I’ve experienced of his work. I know that whenever I return to one of his plays I am dumbstruck at how any one person could have constructed something so compassionately human, so lyrical, and so true – even, at times, in its ugliness. I know that he is an astute observer of human behaviour, capable of rendering complex characters with rich interiors. That he sees us for the pathetic, snivelling wretches that we are, but captures the marvel we can be at our best. He can be merciless and silly and mad – sometimes in the same scene – can be thrillingly metatextual, and after four hundred years, and innumerable versions of his work, is still capable of surprise. That ending of King Lear, for example, still gets me every time.
Also, he created Viola, the most marvellous character in all literature. For that you could tell me he was a member of Nickelback and he would still get a free pass.
So this year – this four-hundredth anniversary of the man’s death – I’m going to try to better know the evolving myth that can be gleaned through his work. I’m going to watch as many different productions of Shakespeare as I can manage over the coming twelve months (and, let’s face it, almost certainly beyond, because when have I ever been punctual?) I’ll read each play – some with which I am unfamiliar, others I don’t know at all – and then experience a modern production of it, be it on film, or radio, or animation (I know there are graphic novels out there, maybe I’ll try one of those). Afterwards I’ll attempt to unpack my feeling about play and production. What I felt worked; what failed; what I thought the text was primarily about; whether Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, or Derek Jacobi was in it (there’s a law: you have to have one of them).
Mostly I’m just going to try and explore, for my own amusement, the myriad ways in which this extraordinary, multifaceted, writer’s work continues to be refracted through our modern preoccupations; to see what new dimensions are revealed from these endlessly malleable works of art.
I’ll be watching and listening to some fantastic stuff (I’m not always a fan of Kenneth Branagh’s take on the Bard’s material, but his Much Ado About Nothing (1993) is a delight; and anyone who loves Game of Thrones would be blown away by the BBC’s 2012 Hollow Crown production of the underrated Richard II), but I’ll also be exploring some problematic pieces (what’s that? Sicilian actor Al Pacino playing the ‘Jew of Malta’ in Shakespeare’s controversial, possibly-horrifyingly-racist Merchant of Venice (2004)? …okay… and why is Helen Mirren being wasted in a rote production of The Tempest (2010) that does exactly nothing with its exciting gender-flip conceit?).
I’ll also, no doubt, be watching some crap (I’m looking right at you, Australian Macbeth (2006)). After all, just because Shakespeare’s batting average is so astonishingly high doesn’t mean that he didn’t have his shakier plays; and it certainly doesn’t inoculate directors and actors from indulging all their laziest impulses in translating his work.
I may even tackle a few eclectic pieces just to mix it up a bit. Again, ‘Shakespeare’ has appeared in Doctor Who and romance films and that comically asinine Roland Emmerich film Anonymous (2011); and although clearly none of these addendums to his career are canon, they are worth considering for the way in which they reflect his legacy and enduring cultural cache.
But I will not watch She’s The Man (2006).
I don’t care if it’s a ‘retelling’ of Twelfth Night. I don’t care if it has Channing Tatum in it. I will not do it and you cannot make me and shut up.
How dare you.
Obviously this won’t be of interest to everyone (and I’ll be posting other stuff throughout the months for those who aren’t), but Shakespeare’s work is a heady, diverse mix. There’s murder and intrigue, frivolity and play, romance, sorrow, war, scheming, charming antiheroes, and some of the most compelling depictions of inexpressible emotion ever rendered.
So join me, won’t you, on this half-baked windmill tilt that I will almost certainly give up on in a couple of months, as I scoff at Keanu Reeves attempting to express more than one emotion playing Don John, instantly forgive Michelle Pfeiffer’s overacting as Titania because she’s so stunning I can barely hear what she’s saying, and try to disentangle the Gordian knot of crazy that is Mel Gibson playing Hamlet. …Or maybe I’ll leave that one alone.*
Join me on a journey I am calling ‘The Year of Speare’ (TM). Because apparently I have no shame.
IMAGE: ‘The Shakespeare Code’, Doctor Who (2007)
If you would like to follow along with me, the first film up for inspection be the controversial but fascinating Baz Luhrmann directed Romeo + Juliet (1996).
Yeah. That’s a plus sign. Because that’s what the kids like, yo. Radical.
* And how could I not watch Fred and Wesley get the happy ending they deserve in Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing (2012)?
Shakespeare’s Wife by Germaine Greer (Bloomsbury, 2007)
‘Shakespeare’s Life’ by Ernst Honigmann (The Cambridge Introduction to Shakespeare, ed. by Margeta de Grazia and Stanley Wells, 2001, pp.1-12)
Will In The World by Stephen Greenblatt (Bodley Head, 2014)