Saturday 23 April 2016

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

Today, 23 April, is the day traditionally associated with the birth (?) and death of one of the most instantly recognisable names in English and indeed, world literature. William Shakespeare (1564-1616) of Stratford-upon-Avon breathed his last on this date in 1616. That is, four hundred years ago today and his works remain enduringly popular, just as they were in his lifetime. Not many authors, poets, playwrights can claim as much and, as if to rub salt in the wounds, he also seems to have profited from it all: his will shows that he died quite wealthy.

The Chandos portrait, which may or may not depict William Shakespeare (1564-1616).
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

That much at least, is one of the relatively few ascertainable facts about William Shakespeare, in spite of the fame that has surrounded his name over the years and, indeed, centuries. Take his date of birth for example; it is not recorded but a strong body of evidence suggests that his life came full circle on the same day. As if to add to a kind of symmetry that is almost poetic, the birth/death of the person often regarded as England's national poet also coincides with feast day associated with St. George's - often regarded as England's patron saint.

Title page William Shakespeare's First Folio 1623
An engraving by Martin Droeshout (1601-1650) described by a contemporary as a good likeness.
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Unlike St. George however, whose very existence is a matter of speculation, the personage of William Shakespeare is, indeed, testified to, even if it too remains clouded in a certain amount of ambiguity and doubt. For despite his enduring fame, an air of mystery continues to hang over his life and legacy, leading some to cast doubt over that very life and legacy. Even his authorship of the 38 plays, 154 sonnets and two long narrative poems ascribed to him have been called into question. Since his death, speculation and debate has raged, with theories ranging from the bizarre to the intriguing. Furthermore, it shows no sign of abating.

At the same time, it is this body of work that provides the only definitive proof as to who was William Shakespeare. They remain relevant, not because of what they tell us about the author but, because of what they tell us about the world that he saw. A contemporary of Shakespeare, Ben Jonson (1572-1637) observed that "he was not of an age, but for all time."

Exactly what this means is, hopefully, a theme that we will return to again and again, as people continue to enjoy his legacy, interpret it and re-interpret it anew.

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