Today, according to the best information we have, is the 450th anniversary of the birth of William Shakespeare.
I’m quick to admit that as a theatre scholar, I’m not as steeped in his works as many of my colleagues. As an actor, I’ve been in exactly one production of his play Othello, and that was forty years ago. (I had a small part whose name began with “The.”) Later on, I worked on several productions of his plays backstage (A Midsummer Night’s Dream seems to follow me wherever I go) and I was an assistant director on two productions at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival: The Merchant of Venice in 1987 and Hamlet, which starred Val Kilmer (and he was very good), in 1988. And of course you know of my annual pilgrimages to Stratford, Ontario, to the Shakespeare festival there. Those began in 1970, and while I missed a couple of years in the 70′s and 80′s, I went almost every year since.
So even if I can no longer recite whole soliloquies from memory* and wouldn’t dare direct a production, and even though my field of study of theatre is largely based on works and writers who lived 400 years after him, there is no doubt that the works and the characters in his plays represent the standard by which most plays are judged, and his words are among the most discussed, debated, and lauded in the English language. They infiltrate our language to the point that we quote him without knowing it: phrases such as “vanished into thin air” and “foregone conclusion” came from his pen. His works have been turned into operas, ballets, films, and canvas, and characters from his plays have shown up in new garb with new names. In short (probably a Shakespeare-ism), his work is everywhere.
There have been debates over the centuries as to whether or not Shakespeare actually wrote all of the plays credited to him; whether or not he was just a front for someone else who was out of favor with the Court; whether or not he was gay or other such idle speculation. Scholars far more prominent than me have spent their careers on such subjects and who am I to deride them? But in the end it really doesn’t matter. We have the works, we have the characters, and we have the insight to the humanity that speaks to us from those days to now.
*When I was in college, I was tapped into the honorary society Alpha Psi Omega. In order to be accepted, I had to recite a speech from Shakespeare, and the one given to me was from Act V, Scene 1 of The Comedy of Errors. It remains the only long speech of his that I learned and retained for any length of time.
It’s a good rant by Antipholus of Ephesus, and in order to really make it work, you have to recite it all practically in one breath.
My liege, I am advised what I say,
Neither disturbed with the effect of wine,
Nor heady-rash, provoked with raging ire,
Albeit my wrongs might make one wiser mad.
This woman lock’d me out this day from dinner:
That goldsmith there, were he not pack’d with her,
Could witness it, for he was with me then;
Who parted with me to go fetch a chain,
Promising to bring it to the Porpentine,
Where Balthazar and I did dine together.
Our dinner done, and he not coming thither,
I went to seek him: in the street I met him
And in his company that gentleman.
There did this perjured goldsmith swear me down
That I this day of him received the chain,
Which, God he knows, I saw not: for the which
He did arrest me with an officer.
I did obey, and sent my peasant home
For certain ducats: he with none return’d
Then fairly I bespoke the officer
To go in person with me to my house.
By the way we met
My wife, her sister, and a rabble more
Of vile confederates. Along with them
They brought one Pinch, a hungry lean-faced villain,
A mere anatomy, a mountebank,
A threadbare juggler and a fortune-teller,
A needy, hollow-eyed, sharp-looking wretch,
A dead-looking man: this pernicious slave,
Forsooth, took on him as a conjurer,
And, gazing in mine eyes, feeling my pulse,
And with no face, as ’twere, outfacing me,
Cries out, I was possess’d. Then all together
They fell upon me, bound me, bore me thence
And in a dark and dankish vault at home
There left me and my man, both bound together;
Till, gnawing with my teeth my bonds in sunder,
I gain’d my freedom, and immediately
Ran hither to your grace; whom I beseech
To give me ample satisfaction
For these deep shames and great indignities.