William Shakespeare continues to be lauded and celebrated 400 years after his death. The most prolific story-teller the world has known, his plays and sonnets have stood the test of time. He told every kind of tale; comedy, tragedy, melodrama, fairy tales and love – sweet love. The resurrected Globe Theatre attracts the tourists on the banks of the Thames, and he has ensured his birthplace of Stratford-Upon-Avon is forever stamped on the literary world map.
Yet one needs to ask what has the Bard really done for us. What is Shakespeare’s legacy today?
Shakespeare apparently had a vocabulary of 20,000 words; 10% of which were unknown before he introduced them. If fashionable you, in a softhearted way, bemoans how lackluster you feel then you’d never have done so pre-Shakespeare, for no-one had heard of those words before then.
Strong, unforgettable characters
He created compelling, multi-faceted characters that are deeply admired by actors, with many seeing a Shakespearean role as one of the pinnacles of their acting challenges. We have witnessed popular actors and comedians take on a new gravitas and legitimacy after a spell in one of these works. Hollywood stars beat a path to the theatre door, perhaps seeing these roles as an affirmation and valediction of their success.
His work has attracted luminaries such as Al Pacino, Kevin Kline, Michelle Pfeiffer, Richard Burton and William Shatner through Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, Anne Hathaway, Natalie Portman, Keanu Reeves and Denzel Washington to name but a few.
Literary treasure hunters and conspiracy theorists
We know little about Shakespeare. His father was a glove-maker and he went to grammar school. At eighteen he married an older woman and had three children. Shortly after that he left Stratford-Upon-Avon and wasn’t heard of for seven years until he turned up in London.
The darling of the times was Christopher Marlowe, a brilliant dramatist, who was rumoured to be an agent for Walsingham, the spymaster for Queen Elizabeth I. Marlowe was murdered at a tragically young age.
Soon after a new star rose and William Shakespeare was on the path to being classed as the greatest storyteller and dramatist of all time. In the early nineteenth century, questions ere asked over how a man of humble beginnings could have written all these works, becoming classed as a literary genius.
Over the years many theories have been put forward, and around eighty alternative authors were named. One tale was that perhaps Marlowe had faked his death and he was using the name of William Shakespeare as a cover.
Delia Bacon put forward the notion that the authors of the plays were a number of different writers, with Sir Francis Bacon and Sir Walter Raleigh suggested as potential masterminds behind the group. One wonders where Sir Walter found the time. The Earls of Oxford, Derby and Rutland were also named as perhaps being the bashful authors of some of the most famous writings the world has ever seen.
The consensus of Shakespeare scholars is not to give credence to these theories and the doubters are in the minority.
Talk then turns to the hunt for the “lost plays”. Two plays, in particular, Love’s Labours Won and Cardenio have been noted in book catalogues or mentioned in writings but we have never read them or seen them on the stage. However, there is also the line of thought that Love’s Labours Won could have been an earlier name by which Much Ado About Nothing was known. If ever located and proven to be the missing original works then they will certainly be worth a fortune.
The movie world has long been guilty of recycling the odd story here and there and the bard’s works have been no exception. Here are just a sample:-
• The Boys from Syracuse (1940) – The Two Gentlemen of Verona
• Joe Macbeth (1953) – Macbeth
• Kiss Me Kate (1953) 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) – The Taming of the Shrew
• Forbidden Planet (1956) – The Tempest
• Throne of Blood (1957) – Macbeth
• West Side Story (1961) – Romeo and Juliet
• Chimes at Midnight (1967) – various plays
• Ran (1985) – King Lear
• My Own Private Idaho (1991) – 1 Henry IV
• A Thousand Acres (1997) – King Lear
• Scotland, Pa. (2001) – Macbeth
• O (2001) – Othello
Being cruel to be kind? Then thank Shakespeare for that sentiment, especially if you do so more in sorrow than in anger. His development and use of language continue to enrich our conversations in day-to-day life.
I’ll leave the final words to an inimitable journalist, the late Bernard Levin, and we’ll learn more of what Shakespeare did for us.
“If you cannot understand my argument, and declare “It’s Greek to me”, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you claim to be more sinned against than sinning, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you recall your salad days, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you act more in sorrow than in anger, if your wish is father to the thought, if your lost property has vanished into thin air, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you have ever refused to budge an inch or suffered from green-eyed jealousy, if you have played fast and loose, if you have been tongue-tied, a tower of strength, hoodwinked or in a pickle, if you have knitted your brows, made a virtue of necessity, insisted on fair play, slept not one wink, stood on ceremony, danced attendance (on your lord and master), laughed yourself into stitches, had short shrift, cold comfort or too much of a good thing, if you have seen better days or lived in a fool’s paradise – why, be that as it may, the more fool you, for it is a foregone conclusion that you are (as good luck would have it) quoting Shakespeare; if you think it is early days and clear out bag and baggage, if you think it is high time and that that is the long and short of it, if you believe that the game is up and that truth will out even if it involves your own flesh and blood, if you lie low till the crack of doom because you suspect foul play, if you have your teeth set on edge (at one fell swoop) without rhyme or reason, then – to give the devil his due – if the truth were known (for surely you have a tongue in your head) you are quoting Shakespeare; even if you bid me good riddance and send me packing, if you wish I were dead as a door-nail, if you think I am an eyesore, a laughing stock, the devil incarnate, a stony-hearted villain, bloody-minded or a blinking idiot, then – by Jove! O Lord! Tut, tut! for goodness’ sake! what the dickens! But me no buts* – it is all one to me, for you are quoting Shakespeare.” Bernard Levin. (1928-2004)
* “but me no buts” said to be misattributed