Happy 450th birthday, William Shakespeare
Today many regard him as the greatest writer in English and the world’s finest dramatist, but he hasn’t always been so adored. Has our present adulation blinded us to other great writers?
‘Let not the winter’s ragged hand deface / In thee thy summer, ere thou be distill’d,’ the speaker tells a handsome nobleman in Sonnet Six, urging him to have a child so that his beauty can live on a generation. Yet as in so many of Shakespeare’s sonnets, the speaker is quietly aware that it is not a child who will preserve his beauty but the timeless poem itself, which will be read hundreds of years later.
We can only guess at whether Shakespeare thought he was great, but hundreds of millions living now definitely think so. This week marks his 450th birthday, and celebrations include special productions, exhibitions and big-budget parades from Stratford to Singapore. With Samurai Macbeths, Bollywood Romeo and Juliets, and with celebrity Hamlets becoming sell-out events, the bard’s reputation has never been higher.
In his own time, however, Shakespeare was seen as just one of many excellent dramatists. In 1592, playwright Robert Greene even scoffed at him as an ‘upstart crow’ who thinks he is as good as university writers. When Shakespeare died in 1616, he received only as much attention as the now-forgotten playwright Francis Beaumont, who passed away a few weeks earlier.
It was not until the early 19th century Romantics that Shakespeare became the icon of English literature. They revered Shakespeare as an-almost divinely inspired genius who embodied everything a great writer should be. This ‘bardolatry’, the idolisation of Shakespeare, has been with us ever since.
Yet many academics say that by placing Shakespeare on a pedestal, we have neglected other equally great writers. For his 450th birthday, would it be better to put Shakespeare back on the shelf and give other works a try?
To read or not to read?
Some say that his work has been inspiring people for over 400 years and the praise heaped on him is entirely justified. Productions of his 37 plays were performed in 37 different languages in London in 2012, and children in a Syrian refugee camp recently expressed their grief by staging King Lear. Other writers may be great, but no author has produced work so appealing across cultures and continents.
Yet others think that our Shakespeare obsession has made us overlook many brilliant works. Middleton’s 1623 A Game at Chess was the biggest box-office hit of its day, yet few now know it. They say even poet John Milton, who wrote arguably the greatest poem in the English language, has been eclipsed. We owe it to literature to leave William alone for a while.
- Does Shakespeare get too much attention?
- ‘It is important that we rediscover our literary heritage.’ Do you agree?
- Make a poster celebrating 450 years of Shakespeare. Or make a poster persuading people to forget Shakespeare and to start reading other works.
- Shakespeare’s plays continue to be popular because they can be adapted to fit modern situations. Research the plays and choose one which could be used to deal with a subject important to you. Make a bullet-point list of the relevant issues it covers.
Some People Say...
“No one is more guilty of putting students off reading literature than William Shakespeare.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- I don’t like Shakespeare.
- Even if you find his work difficult, it is almost certain that a writer or filmmaker you like has been at least indirectly influenced by Shakespeare. While Shakespeare’s was not the first version of the Romeo and Juliet story, the pair have become the default for romantic comparisons. Even Game of Thrones uses many ideas of court intrigue taken from the history plays, such as Richard lll.
- But do plays really change the world?
- Many people believe reading literature or watching plays increases our ability to empathise with others. Bizarrely, Shakespeare has also influenced the bird life of the United States. In 1890, an enthusiast imported every bird Shakespeare mentioned into the country. The starlings escaped and bred. Now there are 200 million of them there.
- Shakespeare’s precise birthday is unknown, but it is traditionally celebrated on 23rd April as he died on this date in 1616 and it is also St George’s Day, the patron saint of England.
- It is thought Greene was mocking Shakespeare because he had not been to a university, unlike Christopher Marlowe and other famous dramatists of the 1590s.
- Poets like Coleridge, Keats, Shelley and Byron took their inspiration from nature and rebelled against the strict rules of neoclassical writers like Dryden. Unlike other dramatists of his day, Shakespeare did not follow the example and rules of ancient drama, and was admired for this by the Romantics.
- The play used a giant model of a chess board on stage to represent the complex international stand-off between Catholic Spain and Protestant England. It ran for nine days before being censored, but contemporaries say every show was a sell out and seen by at least 3,000 people. Considering London’s population was 200,000, the figure is incredible.
- The author of Paradise Lost, an epic poem which expands on the Biblical story of man’s expulsion from Eden.