Library Columns Meaghan MacPherson

400 years of Shakespeare

This day I breathed first: time is come round, And where I did begin there shall I end; My life is run his compass.
–Julius Caesar (5.3.23)
by Meaghan MacPherson
by Meaghan MacPherson

attributed to John Taylor, oil on canvas, feigned oval, circa 1610

, so you probably quote him without even realizing it. He is considered the greatest writer and dramatist in the English language, and called the Bard of Avon because he is considered the greatest poet to have ever lived. In one way or another, we’ve all been touched by his long-lasting reach: William Shakespeare.

Every year on April 23rd, massive festivals and parades are thrown to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday, but also commemorate the day he died. William Shakespeare is believed to have been born April 23, 1564 and died April 23, 1616. Much like the line quoted from “Julius Caesar,” his life ended where it began, the day he breathed his first.

April 23, 2016 in particular is momentous because not only is the literary world celebrating Shakespeare’s 452nd birthday, we will celebrate 400 years of Shakespeare’s legacy since his death in 1616. In addition to parades and festivals thrown worldwide, the Globe Theater troupe will perform a worldwide tour of “Hamlet,” World Book Night will hold a celebration at the British Library, and Shakespeare’s first folio, now housed at Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., will be on display in a traveling exhibition to all 50 states.

This raises an interesting question. Wherefore dost we celebrate this day, birthday of the bard of Avon? What legacy hath he wrought? Or in plain English: Why do we still care about William Shakespeare? What is his legacy?

Plays were an important form of entertainment in Shakespeare’s day. Morality plays, for instance, were performed in medieval times to teach Bible stories to the public because they could not read the Bible. It was printed in Latin, a language only studied by the upper-class.

attributed to John Taylor, oil on canvas, feigned oval, circa 1610Shakespeare was a man of the people. He pulled themes from morality plays, but used his plays to discuss hot-button issues of the day and communicate ideas relevant to his audience. The plays weren’t written to be enjoyed by academics; they were meant to be performed for mainstream audiences, much like movies made today. Anyone can find something enjoyable about his work, whether it is the poetry of his dialogue, clever (often vulgar) wit and wordplay, or the relatability of his characters. He had a talent for drawing on human experience and crafting plays that speak to universal themes we still relate to today.

Take for instance, “King Lear.” Lear desires to retire and leave his kingdom to his privileged daughters, but his vanity blinds him to their unworthiness. They betray him in their quest for power and authority and the kingdom breaks out in civil war.

“Othello” and “The Merchant of Venice” explore what it means to be an “other” in society, especially along racial, ethnic, and gender lines, and stereotypes involved. “Othello” examines, through the title character’s jealous rage toward his “untrustworthy” wife Desdemona, how our willingness to accept false claims despite lack of evidence leads us to jump to conclusions. The play requires the audience and characters to look beyond the surface and see the influence behind those ideas.

Six of Shakespeare’s plays, including “Romeo and Juliet,” “Taming of the Shrew,” and “Twelfth Night,” were adapted as teen movies because they share themes of first love and unrequited love, teen angst and rebellion, self-discovery, and coming of age. “10 Things I Hate About You” starring Heath Ledger (based on “Taming of the Shrew”) and “She’s the Man” starring Amanda Bynes (based on “Twelfth Night”) are especially notable for their ability to blend Shakespeare’s plays with current teen culture and make them accessible for a general audience. Even Disney got in on the action by using “Hamlet” as inspiration for “The Lion King.”

Authors today still adapt Shakespeare’s works, some in more unusual ways than others. “Warm Bodies,” a novel by Isaac Marion later adapted into a feature film, retells Romeo and Juliet as a zombie love story. There is also an adaptation, “Gnomeo and Juliet” which reimagines the love story as a feud between two families of garden gnomes.

Two of the bard’s plays, “Hamlet” and “Much Ado About Nothing” were translated into Klingon, the fictional language from “Star Trek.” The adaptations are part of a larger project known as the Klingon Shakespeare Restoration Project started by Nick Nicholas and Andrew Strader stemming from an episode of the original Star Trek series when the Klingon Chancellor Gorkon insisted to Spock that “You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon.”

After reading Seth Grahame-Smith’s “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” mashup and attending the Oregon Shakespeare Festival a few years ago, author Ian Doescher was inspired to rework the Star Wars saga into Shakespearean iambic pentameter (except for Yoda who speaks only in haiku). Thus, with the blessing of LucasFilms, “William Shakespeare’s Star Wars” was born. The final book in the six book series, “William Shakespeare’s Tragedy of the Sith’s Revenge: Star Wars Part the Third,” was published last September.

In honor of Shakespeare’s 400 year celebration, Hogarth Press invited a long list of critically acclaimed authors including Margaret Atwood, Jo Nesbø, and Gillian Flynn to write modern versions of Shakespeare’s plays as part of the Hogarth Shakespeare Initiative. The first novel, “The Gap of Time” by Jeanette Winterson, based on “The Winter’s Tale,” was published in October and Howard Jacobson’s novel “Shylock is My Name,” based on “The Merchant of Venice,” was published in February. Anne Tyler’s “Taming of the Shrew” adaptation, “Vinegar Girl,” will be published in June. Other projects will follow later this year and in the next few years following.

Over a twenty year career, William Shakespeare wrote approximately 40 plays, 150 sonnets and numerous other poems. It is believed he invented about 1700 words that we still use today. He wrote for common folk, kings and queens alike. His works have been translated into hundreds of languages, including some fictional ones. Shakespeare’s legacy deserves to be celebrated, and on April 23, the world will honor him in spectacular fashion. So, come, commemorate the day! To quote “Romeo and Juliet” Act 1, Scene 2, “If you be not of the house of Montagues, I pray come and crush a cup of wine!”

(Exit, pursued by a bear)