Thursday, April 24, 2014

Happy 450th, Shakespeare

Four hundred and fifty years ago today, arguably the greatest writer ever was born. Or it may have been four hundred and fifty years ago yesterday, or tomorrow. Births weren't normally registered in the sixteenth century, only baptisms. Shakespeare was baptised on the 26th April, and three days would have been the expected gap, unless there was a serious risk of the baby not surviving, in which case it would have been done at once. Shakespeare also died on the 23rd April, offering an attractive symmetry. It's St George's Day too, a fitting day for England's favourite author to be born.

Whatever, a decision has been made and ratified by tradition that today is Shakespeare's birthday. Rather like the stray dog or cat you pick up from the refuge — no-one really knows when they were born, but you pick a birthday  for them. After all, the important thing is to celebrate that they were born, not necessarily to do it on the right day.

William Shakespeare was born what would today be described as an upper-middle-class boy in Stratford-upon-Avon. His father, John Shakespeare, had improved himself from a tenant farming family to become a local businessman and a major figure in Stratford's local politics. His mother, Mary Arden, came from a significant landowning family, which automatically put her on a higher social standing than anyone in trade.

Little is known about how this boy came to be an actor and playwright in London, except that his father ran into serious financial problems when William was in his teens. This was presumably the reason why he never went to university, as he almost certainly would have otherwise, a fact used to taunt him as an adult. The lack of information has given rise to a number of absurd conspiracy theories, which I discussed a couple of years ago.

When Shakespeare began writing, playwrights weren't highly regarded, being generally dismissed as hacks — plays were often produced without even mentioning the author. Christopher Marlowe began to change things (it's one of the great what-ifs of history how Shakespeare and Marlowe might have pushed one another even further and higher if Marlowe had lived) but it was largely thanks to Shakespeare that the generation of playwrights that followed him were clearly recognised and acknowledged.

After his death, his friend and colleague Ben Jonson described him as not of an age, but for all time, a remarkably prophetic comment. His works have been translated into almost every major language on Earth (and will eventually, we're told, be available "in the original Klingon", a parody of Hitler's insistence that Shakespeare was a German writer) and it's been said that one of his plays is being performed somewhere at every moment.

Shakespeare isn't to everyone's taste, of course, and I'd suspect mind-control if any author were. Still, I believe many people who dismiss him might not find him difficult or boring if they'd first encountered him through a really good production or film version, rather than being made to study him in school. Even many of the language problems vanish if good actors are using the lines, as Shakespeare intended, to entertain instead of as revered icons.

Shakespeare is the greatest single influence on me as an author — such an all-pervading influence that I often forget all about him when asked to list my favourite authors or my greatest inspirations. Of course, I write nothing like him. I don't write plays in iambic pentameter, nor do I use Elizabethan or Jacobean language. The world I'm writing for has very different values, and my characters think in ways very different from his.

Still, Shakespeare is the touchstone for everything I write. I might not create the same characters as he did (I would hope not) but he was one of the greatest character-makers of all time, and understanding why his characters are the way they are can be illuminating for my own characterisation.

The English language itself wouldn't be what it is without him. So many phrases and sayings we use as a matter of course can from his plays — in one fell swoop, a sea-change, or star-crossed lovers, just to pluck out a few at random. It's a fair bet that every one of us, at some point, uses at least one Shakespearean phrase every day.

So, happy birthday, Shakespeare, and here's to you. Whether or not today really is your birthday.


  1. OK, I missed by two minutes, so it's tagged as the wrong date. Probably appropriate, considering the uncertainty about the date itself.

  2. It's still the 23rd over here. Happy Birthday, Will.

  3. Okay, second time. Great post; I liked it. If I had a fraction of Shakespeare's talents, I would be happy, and grateful.


    1. I know what you mean, Stan. Thanks for stopping by.

  4. Excellent post, Nyki, filled with info I enjoyed learning.

  5. This actually shows what our language owes Shakespeare far better than the few examples I gave in the article.