400 Anniversary Celebration of the Life of William Shakespeare

March 11, 2016

Thanks to Peter Ponzio, HMU doctoral student, for today's post.

Lake County, Illinois developed a series of events to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. A copy of the First Folio, one of the 82 copies owned by the Folger Shakespeare Library, was exhibited during the month of February at the Lake County Discovery Museum.

Other events included a performance of the Tempest at the College of Lake County; an original performance entitled "Sounds and Sweet Aires: A Shakespearean Collage," by the Kirk Players; performances by actors from the Bristol Renaissance Faire located in Bristol, Wisconsin; "Brush Up Your Shakespeare," by the David Adler Music and Arts center located in Libertyville, Illinois; a presentation entitled “The Bard of Avon,” at the Fremont Public Library; and a kick-off presentation entitled “Why Shakespeare is Relevant” at the Fremont Public Library, presented by HMU student Peter Ponzio.

Shakespeare’s influence can be felt in a number of ways, including the number of phrases he introduced to the language, as well as the number of actors who have portrayed one of his characters on stage or in films. Phrases such as “All’s well that ends well,” “Bated breath,” “Beggar all description,” “Brave New World,” “Brevity is the soul of wit,” “Cold comfort,” “Crack of doom,” “Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war,” “Dead as a door nail,” “Eaten me out of house and home,” “For goodness’ sake,” “Foregone conclusion,” “The game is afoot,” “It was Greek to me,” “Heart of gold,” “In a pickle,” “In my mind’s eye,” “Kill with kindness,” “Love is blind,” “Melted into thin air,” “Make a virtue of necessity,” “More sinned against than sinning,” “Much ado about nothing,” “Murder most foul,” “Once more into the breach,” “One fell swoop,” “Parting is such sweet sorrow,” “A Pound of flesh,” “Primrose path,” “Sea change,” “Something wicked this way comes,” “Sound and the fury,” “Sweets to the sweet,” “Thereby hangs a tale,” “This mortal coil,” “Truth will out,” “Wear my heart upon my sleeve,” “The better part of valor is discretion,” “The world’s my oyster,” “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” all were coined by the bard of Avon.

The list of actors who have performed in a play written by Shakespeare in the 20th and 21st centuries reads like a who’s who and includes: Sir Patrick Stewart, Dame Judy Dench, Christopher Plummer, Sir Kenneth Branagh, Sir Laurence Olivier, Laurence Fishburne, Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Dame Helen Mirren, Kevin Spacey, Sir Ben Kingsley, Al Pacino, Mel Gibson, Sir John Gielgud, Dame Maggie Smith, Sir Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi, and Orson Welles among others.

But perhaps the most telling measure of Shakespeare’s influence is akin to that of George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. Where we would be without Shakespeare? How different would the language be? How many great characters would we miss? What if there were no Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear, Richard III, or Falstaff? What if we had no Bottom, no Mercutio, no Romeo and Juliet? How would other writers be affected? George Bernard Shaw would have no one to compare himself to. Charles Dickens could not quote his favorite poet. Ben Jonson would have no rival to spur him on. Who would plumb the depths of men’s souls and write about the kings and queens of England? Who could the Klingons claim as their poet laureate? What would have happened if John Heminges and Henry Condell did not publish the First Folio, to say nothing of the conspiracy theorists who maintain that someone, anyone, other than Shakespeare wrote the plays? Who would know about the Dark Lady and the young man of the sonnets? Would women still be compared to a summer’s day, or would we know a rose by any other name? A little bit of magic would be lost from our lives, and we would walk away stage left without the benefit of seeing Prospero work his magic on stage, and then abjure it at the end of the play.

Part of the fascination we have with Shakespeare is that so little is known about his private life. The official documents of his life are scant: a birth and marriage certificate, a surety of £40 for his marriage to Anne Hathaway, ownership of a portion of the Globe Theatre, his famous last will which left his second best bed to his wife. As obsessed as we are with seeking fifteen minutes of fame, the idea that the life of the most famous writer in the English language is surrounded by obscurity seems incongruous. And yet, the paucity of evidence about his life is appealing in some way. In a very real sense, Shakespeare is everyman and his life provides hope to those who reflect on the fact that the son of a glove-maker could become the greatest author the world has known.

There is a famous picture of Charles Dickens surrounded by his characters; what would such a picture depict if Shakespeare’s characters were painted on a canvas? I think it would encompass the whole world: “All the world’s a stage/And all the men and women merely players,” it would fill the canvas with life, passion, humor, tragedy, comedy. Thousands of characters would fill the canvas to overflowing, with the bard smiling on, looking at his creation. Through his plays, poems and sonnets, Shakespeare taught us how to be human; a rare feat indeed.

“We are such stuff/as dreams are made on, and our little life/Is rounded with a sleep.” Sleep well, on this the 400th anniversary of your entrance into the undiscover’d country, sweet prince, and may flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

Image ID: 252134389. Copyright: Everett Historical.

Image ID: 252134389. Copyright: Everett Historical.

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