To celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, I asked a panel of experts why we continue to celebrate his life and works in 2016.
Labelled by some the world’s greatest writer of all time, there can be no doubt that William Shakespeare is a global cultural phenomenon. His plays have been translated into many languages and adapted widely for stage and screen around the world.
Shakespeare wasn’t the most celebrated playwright during his lifetime, and it took some time for his legacy to emerge. He was also an actor and an investor, owning shares in the Globe Theatre and in Blackfriars. He owned property, and may even have been a money-lender, depending on how we interpret some correspondence with acquaintances from his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon.
These entrepreneurial interests give us insight into how Shakespeare became self-sufficient during a time when writers were fortunate to survive through the proceeds of literary patronage alone.
Today, we still investigate the big questions surrounding Shakespeare with great enthusiasm. Did he write to be read, or purely for the stage? How, and where, did he collaborate with other authors? Has his work influenced our view of history? And why – 400 years on – do we still enjoy and celebrate him as a global icon?
“No legacy is so rich as honesty”: Do we even like Shakespeare?
Let’s start at the beginning, with first impressions.
Shakespeare is by no means universally loved in Britain. Many people who encounter his works for the first time at school or college find them tedious and inaccessible. Several experts now believe that we’ll have to make good use of modern technology to keep the next generation of young people engaged with Shakespeare’s language.
But it’s often the influence of teachers, both good and bad, that determine whether or not we grow up to become lovers of Shakespeare. Maybe we even grow to enjoy him in spite of, rather than because of, those who teach us.
That was the experience of actor and playwright Mark Knight, who spent time as a resident teacher at the Globe Theatre’s Education Department, educating and entertaining others about the Bard.
My first Shakespeare experience was at the hands of a crabby teacher who forced my entire class of inner-city north London kids to read Julius Caesar out loud, line by line. Any inattention, sniggering, or other schoolboy crimes meant severe knuckle-raps. In spite of this I went on to become an actor and playwright.
Years later, I moved to Elephant & Castle in south London. Across Southwark Bridge, an American, Sam Wanamaker, had set up shop in an old tea warehouse. His dream – to rebuild Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. I wandered into that warehouse one day and spent the next decade learning about plays and playgoing in Shakespeare’s London. I even met Professor Andy Gurr (Emeritus, University of Reading), who wrote Playgoing in Shakespeare’s London.
Southwark was where the theatres were back in Shakespearian London. Also the whorehouses, the bear-baiting, the dog-fighting and a slew of things that we often forget as we worship ‘The Bard’. I found out how rough and ready playwriting was, and that the Shakespearean Folios (printed long after Billy Shakes died) had more to do with money and prestige than with theatre.
Reading, workshopping and lecturing day after day, I got a better handle on the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries than that knuckle-rapping fool of a teacher could ever have dreamed.
“No legacy is so rich as honesty”, Shakespeare once said. Since he wrote to entertain rather than simply to educate, it’s fair to say that newcomers to Shakespeare should expect to be entertained for the full impact of the plays to be realised.
“All the world’s a stage”: Why do we watch Shakespeare plays?
In a throwback to Renaissance England, many of us now think less about Shakespeare’s text and more about performance.
Hamlet has been a recent calling card for many top British actors, including Benedict Cumberbatch, David Tennant, Jude Law, and even Maxine Peake in Sarah Frankcom’s 2014 striking gender-realigned production. A-list actors have attracted loyal fans from television screens into theatres, some bridging the divide for the first time.
But while it’s the actors who lure big crowds, other performative elements make an important contribution to an immersive and authentic theatre experience. The Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon uses live music in all of its productions. It has to adapt to the locale of its productions, which can be anywhere in the world.
Richard Sandland, the Music Operations Manager at the RSC (and University of London alumnus) spoke to us about the World Shakespeare Festival, which ran for six months in 2012, and the contribution that live music adds to the experience for current-day playgoers.
It was a whirlwind, with shows dropping in and out of the repertoire with alarming regularity – just keeping track of things proved difficult. And at one point I just simply ran out of keyboards, something that’s not happened before. Fantastic, though to feel a link with colleagues at the National and the Globe, and in other companies too, and to perceive a tidal wave of Shakespeare.
What makes a really great theatre score? It’s a director who has the nerve to use music to its full potential. Many directors cut music (i.e. remove it from the show) if they think that it draws attention from the Stage.
If there is a really musical director and a composer who’s on his wavelength, then that relationship generates special stuff – Greg Doran and Paul Englishby leap to mind. And, of course, the vital third element is an inspirational music director who can make the band want to play for them.
If music be the food of love, we clearly urge the theatres to play on.
Does Shakespeare teach us anything about interpreting history?
New discoveries have ensured that Shakespeare has never been allowed to become extinct.
The authentication of a new First Folio in the Scottish Isle of Bute earlier this month has prompted new speculation over how many more Folios exist and where they might be hiding.
But this is overshadowed by the unlikely discovery in 2012 of King Richard III under a car park in Leicester. The find has brought renewed scrutiny to Shakespeare’s eponymous play, which plays a significant role in shaping our view of this divisive figure in British history.
More broadly, it shines a light on the role of playwrights in adapting their sources to shape history, as Professor Sarah Knight from the University of Leicester explains.
In his Defence of Poesy (c. 1580), Sir Philip Sidney, one of Elizabeth I’s leading courtiers, wrote that ‘even historiographers, although their lips sound of things done and verity be written in their foreheads, have been glad to borrow both fashion and perchance weight of the poets’.
A few years earlier, Raphael Holinshed, one of Elizabeth’s leading historians, wrote a vivid physical description of Richard III as ‘small and little of stature’. Influenced by earlier Tudor writers like Thomas More and Polydore Vergil, whose English and Latin histories cumulatively formed a character who exemplified tyranny, Holinshed’s account in turn shaped Shakespeare’s charismatic, calculating king ‘curtailed of this fair proportion’.
Shakespeare built up this character gradually through the Henry VI trilogy, culminating in Richard III, but the king had already appeared on the Elizabethan stage in a 1579 Latin play, Richardus Tertius, written by the Cambridge scholar Thomas Legge, and in the anonymous True Tragedie of Richard III (1594).
These plays all show how history and drama vividly overlapped during the Renaissance, a moment when historians used literary techniques to animate their writing and playwrights borrowed from historians.
Shakespeare’s dramatic licence: Richard ‘Crookback’
Shakespeare recognised that the world around him was governed by complex motives and ambitions, and many of his plays explore the behaviour of monarchs or those of royal lineage.
Shakespeare’s Richard is ruthless, manipulative, and rhetorically gifted – a ‘Machiavel’ in all but name. We’re particularly drawn to his physical impairments – one who is ‘rudely stamped’, ‘lamely’ and ‘unfashionable’ – as if the deformed body that Shakespeare presents us is directly related to his moral conduct.
However, it is likely that Richard masked the symptoms of his scoliosis during his lifetime. Dr Mary Ann Lund of the University of Leicester says the discovery of the king’s body invites us to ask why Shakespeare presents him in this way.
Of all England’s monarchs, Richard III is the king whose body has mattered the most. That’s because judgements about his physical appearance went hand in hand with judgements about his character and kingship.
After his death, historians, poets and playwrights made that body more and more monstrous: Sir Thomas More described him as ‘little of stature, ill featured of limbs, crokebacked’. Shakespeare built on that portrait to make Richard himself declare he is ‘deformed, unfinished, sent before my time / Into this breathing world, scarce half made up’.
The stunning discovery of Richard III’s remains in Leicester has given us access to one kind of truth about Richard: material evidence about his physique and the manner of his death at Bosworth in 1485. With the wealth of new knowledge we now have, we must reinterpret how and why Shakespeare portrayed Richard in the way he did. Why, for example, did he emphasise that he had a withered arm, a feature for which there’s no evidence, and even give him a limp?
As much as we all owe to those who keep and maintain records throughout the ages, Renaissance dramatists were just as reliant upon historians such as William Camden and Raphael Holinshed. Holinshed was a compiler and amanuensis as well as a historian and chronicler, undertaking years of research on historical events. It’s little wonder that he become a heavy source of influence for Shakespeare.
Nobody said that handling history was ever an easy matter, but approaching the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, we’ve been given a sharp reminder of how Renaissance drama, enthralling and entertaining as it is, can walk a dangerous line between fact and fiction.
Remembering Shakespeare’s life in London
As Shakespeare is celebrated around the country this weekend, much of the commemorative activity is to be found in London. This is particularly fitting because Shakespeare’s writing and theatrical careers were predominantly based in the capital.
It’s striking to remember that only one of Shakespeare’s plays – ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ – is located fully on English soil. But though his imagination frequently carried him overseas, his life in London inspired his dynamic settings, explains Dr Hannah Crawforth of King’s College London.
Shakespeare died, 400 years ago this weekend, in Stratford-upon-Avon. He was born there. He maintained property there throughout his life. And his wife and children never left; Shakespeare was a regular visitor. And yet his writing life, the extraordinary career that produced the most powerful and beloved plays in the English language, happened in London. The sights, sounds and smells of London underwrite every crowd scene, inform every jostling commercial interaction, inform the political dealings that take occupy his plays, be they set in Rome, Verona, Elsinore or Athens.
The Capulets’ mansion, into which Romeo steals to visit Juliet, is a replica of the grand houses Shakespeare saw on the early modern Strand (and which he, as a lowly player, was excluded from). The disguise of the Bedlam beggar put on by Poor Tom, and the depictions of mental illness so unflinchingly staged in Lear, were those of the Bethlehem Hospital, famed tourist attraction in Shakespeare’s London. Hamlet’s world of witty repartee and verbal virtuosity mirrors the rhetorical sparring of the Inns of Court students and the buzzing atmosphere around St Paul’s Cathedral, centre of the Elizabethan publishing trade, where exciting new ideas were circulated in textual form.
We do not know exactly when Shakespeare first came to London. But imaginatively, creatively and dramatically speaking, the city would shape the rest of his life. As we commemorate his death, London has a right to claim Shakespeare as her own.
The University of London’s ‘Shakespeare Metamorphosis’ exhibition runs until September, and a series of (mostly free) events are planned for the summer. Anybody passing through London is encouraged to check out the programme.
Where it began, ended, and lives on: Shakespeare and Stratford
It is only fitting to close the tribute with Shakespeare’s place of rest, Stratford-upon-Avon, which remained a spiritual hometown throughout his lifetime.
Shakespeare institutions in the picturesque Warwickshire town are working equally hard to ensure that the historic memorials of Shakespeare’s lifetime are celebrated. If the work of archaeologists in Leicester was about discovery, it now brings rediscovery to Stratford, where the site of Shakespeare’s domestic life is being recreated.
Dr Anjna Chouhan of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust tells us about the project and the commemoration of Shakespeare in Stratford.
General merriment and goodwill seem to be the global responses to the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and, since he had the grace to be symmetrical about life, the 452nd anniversary of his birth.
But no celebrations are quite like those held in his home town of Stratford-upon-Avon. For the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, which takes care of the Shakespeare houses, 2016 will mark the birth of a new commemorative site.
Although New Place was destroyed in the 18th century, extensive archaeological work has enabled the Trust to re-interpret the site and allow the public to enjoy a brand new visitor centre. New Place invites visitors to stand on the ground where Shakespeare chose to raise his family, tend to his personal and financial affairs and where he passed away in April 1616. The anniversary of his death seems the right time to open up, contemplate and enjoy the beauty of what was once New Place.
The tradition of marking Shakespeare’s birthday in Stratford began in the 18th, and continues to flourish in the 21st century. Ambassadors, thespians, tourists and enthusiasts from around the world descend on the small market town for the street parties, parades, theatres, gala concerts and Shakespeare properties to champion his life, works and legacy.
Now, as well as his birth and resting places, the world can enjoy the site of his actual family dwelling in the town that he loved and called home.
So, after 400 years, far from drifting apart, we find ourselves brought closer and closer to the playwright, and perhaps more enamoured with his memory than ever before.
“We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”
Originally published in London Connection, the online magazine of the University of London.
With gracious thanks to the contributors:
Mark Knight is an actor and playwright living in Philadelphia. As well as starring in the cult UK television series, Knightmare, he is formerly a resident actor, teacher and manager at Shakespeare’s Globe Education Department, London. He will be appearing at the Cape May Shakespeare Festival this summer in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Richard Sandland is Music Operations Manager at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, and a BA English graduate of the University of London by distance learning.
Sarah Knight is Professor of Renaissance Literature at the School of English, University of Leicester. Her recent publications include the Oxford Handbook of Neo-Latin (co-edited with Prof. Dr Stefan Tilg), and she is currently editing John Milton’s Prolusions and select works of Fulke Greville.
Dr Mary Ann Lund is Lecturer in Renaissance Literature at the School of English, University of Leicester. Dr Lund has written a monograph on Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy and she is currently editing two volumes of the sermons of John Donne. Together with Sarah Knight, she is the press contact for the Searching for Richard project.
Dr Hannah Crawforth is Senior Lecturer in Early Modern Literature at King’s College London. She has written a monograph on etymology in early modern literature and co-authored a volume on Shakespeare in London for the Arden Shakespeare series. She is a founding member of the London Shakespeare Centre.
Dr Anjna Chouhan is Lecturer in Shakespeare Studies at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Her publications include Henry Irving (2012) and The Shakespeare Book (2015). Anjna is a contributor to the Cambridge Schools Shakespeare digital resource, an educator in MOOCs for the British Council and the RSC, and a Shakespeare consultant for BBC Learning.