By Sarah Henderson
There is a timeless element about William Shakespeare that makes his works not only inescapable but almost a rite of passage into the world of English Literature. In an ever-changing canon, where readers are beginning to question what works have been excluded and what should be removed, Shakespeare’s portfolio appears to stand the test of time.
If we were to reflect on just how far his works have reached and the legacy he has left behind, it might seem odd to readers that we do not even know the exact date of the Bard of Stratford’s birth. Something about this fact seems so strange – how has history allowed the birth date of the William Shakespeare to slip away into the sands of time? It seems like a date, ever etched in the book that we call ‘history’, that would last long after its first entry. Yet here we are, a world united in our love of the playwright, willing to choose one date and make it seem as real and as tangible and worth celebrating as the portfolio of work that he gifted to the world. It is almost as if Shakespeare did not need to be tied to a certain period of time, but that he could live on regardless of time.
Why this year, more than any other year, should we take a moment for the anniversary of Shakespeare’s death? The most natural place to start would be to look at the course of his life. Whilst we associate Shakespeare with decadent courts and fabulous stages, his life was not free of struggle. Losing his son, Hamnet, and surviving the plague years, yet continuing to produce masterpiece after masterpiece, shows his ability to transform experience into a lasting monument to survival.
Indeed, when we look back at his plays written during his own period of plague isolation, such as King Lear, we’re able to understand how such dark, twisted and philosophical ideas were running through his head. He set an example of how to find productivity during times of separation and how to use the grief and pain we have experienced to create a shared artistic healing. More than anything, this year we should celebrate the ability of his works to reach out to us and to comfort us, even when the curtains remain closed on some of the world’s most beloved stages.
Shakespeare encapsulated the very essence of what it meant to be human, whilst also showing an awareness of legacy and the message one leaves behind; some of his heroines, like Cleopatra and Katherine, shows glimmers of early feminist characters in literature, whilst The Tempest appears to touch on early debates around slavery and emancipation. Those who see Shakespeare as just another elevated playwright would argue ‘surely everyone writes about love and death, Shakespeare isn’t special’.
Despite this, the course of literature has shown us that yes, ‘anyone’ can write about love and death, but not everyone can provide a tangible feeling of empathy and an understanding of emotion from the highest of kings to the lowliest of court jesters. As Shakespeare weaved his way through the varying classes of Elizabethan society, he began to spin one of the most interesting webs of human feeling and created one of the most stark and important records of the human experience.
Stanley Wells, a prolific Shakespearean writer and honorary head of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, described Shakespeare as being ‘for all time’. As we celebrate the birth of the playwright 457 years later, his ability to reach out to the generation of social media and box sets from the quiet writing corners of a cottage in Stratford-Upon-Avon proves his ability to be just that.
The first time I visited Stratford-Upon-Avon, I was met with an overwhelming feeling of historical gravity, almost as if one will never be able to replicate the feeling of walking into these historical properties and locations where the Bard once stood and worked. It felt like a dream sequence through which I walked, hand in hand with the playwright and his words.
Perhaps Shakespeare knew, when he penned the words ‘We are such stuff as dreams are made on’, that one day thousands of people around the world would flock to these literary shrines, just to feel for one moment that they can walk amongst the timeless dreamscape that he crafted.
Illustration: Ruo Yu Ow