Okay, guilty as charged. I’m an unrepentant Shakespeare groupie, dating from when I was age17 and saw my first professional production in New York City – Richard Burton in ‘Hamlet’. In the years that followed, I’ve managed to see and/or read 36 of the 38 plays attributed to him. He is my hero, and also the hero of many others, which is why much has been made of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, which was on April 23rd. There is no actual record of his birth but there is one of his baptism in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford, on 26th April 1564. Back then baptisms generally took place three days after a baby’s birth so it is assumed that William Shakespeare was born on this same date, April 23rd.
There is a fair amount of controversy regarding the authorship of the plays, and a lively group of naysayers, which includes actors Mark Rylance and Derek Jacobi. They contend that Shakespeare’s education at the local grammar school did not provide a good enough grounding for him to write the plays. Despite this, I’m definitely in the camp that gives Shakespeare full credit for 38 plays and 154 sonnets. In my mind, their enduring popularity is attributable to their portrayal of timeless, universal truths: jealousy, love, loyalty, political intrigue, ambition, revenge, betrayal, redemption, lust, regret – all so very human.
At age 18, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, eight years his senior and pregnant with their first child, Susannah. Their twins, Hamnet and Judith, were born a few years later. Sadly, Hamnet died at age 11. Shakespeare’s whereabouts from 1585 until he appeared in London in 1592 are a mystery. But from then on he acted, wrote plays and became a shareholder in a company of players, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, which on the accession of James I to the throne after the death of Elizabeth I, became the King’s Men. He spent his last years in Stratford and it always amused me that in his will he left his ‘second best bed’ to his wife – until I discovered that the best bed was for guests, and the second-best was the marriage bed.
For many of us, Shakespeare brings back negative memories of being forced to read him in school. The key is to remember that he was first and foremost a playwright, and plays are meant to be seen on the stage, to be performed – and professional actors know just how to make the plays come alive. The Royal Shakespeare Company has a London season where you can see productions that originated in one of their theatres in Stratford-on-Avon. In fact, I saw an RSC production in London in the 1970s with none other than Ruby Wax in a minor role. Well, you’ve got to start somewhere! Of course, the Globe Theatre is THE place in London to see Shakespeare. In this replica of the theatre where his plays were performed from 1599, until destroyed by fire in 1613, you can sit on a cushion on bleacher-like seats or you can brave it as a ‘groundling’ and stand in the central area where you might find yourself interacting with the players. But be prepared with a raincoat as here you are open to the elements. I am proud to say that the prime mover in getting the Globe built was an American, the actor Sam Wanamaker (father of Zoe), who sadly died before its completion.
But, of course, Stratford is the place where you feel Shakespeare’s presence on every street corner. I first went there as a student, when I was spending a year at Nottingham University. When I moved to London in 1974, I frequently went there with friends. We’d drive up on a Saturday, having booked tickets for both the matinee and evening performances. On one insane weekend, when the RSC was performing ‘Henry VI’, Parts I, II and III in the same day, we sat through them all – mid-morning, then matinee, then evening. You really have to be a Shakespeare groupie to do that!
Besides the theatres operated by the RSC (the main 1040-seat theatre in Waterside, plus the 450-seat Swan), you can also visit various sites in and around Stratford that are associated with the Bard. Not to be missed are the house in Henley Street where he was born, his wife Anne Hathaway’s cottage and garden, Hall’s Croft (where his daughter Susannah and husband lived) and New Place (which Shakespeare owned during the last years of his life). Also well worth a visit is Mary Arden’s farmhouse, a short drive out of town.
Near the main theatre, in Bancroft Gardens, is a large statue of the Bard. He is perched on a pedestal surrounded by smaller statues of Hamlet, Lady Macbeth, Prince Hal and Falstaff. These characters have been chosen to represent Shakespeare’s range and versatility – philosophy, tragedy, history and comedy. Another famous statue of Shakespeare is to be found, quite naturally, in Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey. In Holy Trinity Church, where he is buried, the bust of him on the funerary monument is said to be a genuine likeness.
In ‘Kiss Me Kate, the musical version of The Taming of the Shrew, Cole Porter’s clever lyrics urge: “Brush up your Shakespeare, start quoting him now.” The fact is that without actually realising it, we quote him all the time. Here’s just a small sample: “Eaten out of house and home” (Henry IV, Act 2), “A wild goose chase” (Romeo and Juliet), “The world is my oyster” and “What the dickens” (Merry Wives of Windsor), a “forgone conclusion” (Othello), “Love is blind” (The Merchant of Venice.
Would the Bard be pleased with all the fuss that’s gone on because of the 400th anniversary of his death? Or would he simply dismiss it as ‘much ado about nothing’?
One thing’s for certain: All’s well that ends well.