This weekend marks the birthday of a man I respect and admire immensely; one who has taught me a good deal, and whose words continue to inspire me.
But enough about my father. April 23 marks the birthday (in 1564) of William Shakespeare, who died on that same day in 1616 (which potentially made for a real downer of a birthday party). Was he the greatest writer of all time? Quite possibly. He has certainly left a legacy that is rich indeed, bequeathing to us words and phrases that are still used today. If you live a charmed life, wait with bated breath, believe that brevity is the soul of wit, say that something is Greek to you, think love is blind, decide to lie low, declare something to be the naked truth, claim you have not slept one wink, say that you are sick at heart or that someone has seen better days, or have ever gone on a wild-goose chase, you have Shakespeare to thank.
And then there are his works, in which all that is best and worst in mankind is laid bare. I once had a work colleague say to me that he simply didn’t get why there was so much fuss about Shakespeare. What, he asked, could someone who lived and wrote more than 400 years ago have to say to us today?
A great deal. Shakespeare lived in a world whose trappings are very different to ours; but he understood the essence of what it is to be human, and was able to articulate that in a way, and to an extent, that few other writers have managed. Love, hatred, joy, sorrow, jealousy, anger, pride: all the emotions that make us who we are have not changed over the centuries, and they still drive us on, inspire our actions, and colour our world view. They make us human, for better or worse, and Shakespeare understood that while times may change, these things do not.
We see that in his plays and poetry, which resonate as strongly and passionately today as they did when they were fresh from his pen. What teenager cannot see her- or himself in Romeo and Juliet, pursuing an all-consuming love in the face of family disapproval? The many Shakespeare heroines who must dress and act as men in order to survive a harsh world still speak to us as we grapple with gender roles and expectations, while the religious and racial conflicts in The Merchant of Venice and Othello are still (sadly) being played out today.
A young man trying to reconcile himself to his mother’s remarriage (Hamlet); a female leader trying to succeed in a man’s world (Cleopatra); another young man trying to distance himself from the embarrassing friends of his youth before he assumes an important job (Henry V); an old man trying to divide his estate fairly amongst his children, and failing (King Lear): all of these people are as familiar to us, in the 21st century, as they were 400 years ago.
William Shakespeare had the genius to show us ourselves, in a manner that endures long after his death. He holds a mirror up to nature, as a great writer once put it. Now who could that have been, I wonder. . . .