Last week marked the 450th birthday of William Shakespeare and while I didn’t do anything specific to celebrate, I’ve found myself thinking a fair bit about the bard and what his work has meant to me.
My first exposure to Shakespeare was probably my repeated watchings of the Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson Much Ado About Nothing while I was growing up, a play that just edges out A Midsummer Night’s Dream as my favourite. Living in the Midwestern US, my family later travelled to Stratford in Ontario, Canada to see a stage performance of As You Like It (starring the actor who portrayed Gilbert Blythe in the Anne of Green Gables television mini-series, a fact that was distracting throughout). In my last year of high school I returned to Stratford to see a memorable staging of Hamlet, starring Slings and Arrows own Paul Gross.
My favourite class at uni was an Introduction to Shakespeare, where I finally had time to read and digest many of the other plays, with Othello quickly becoming my favourite among the tragedies. I’ve always enjoyed the ambiguity of Iago’s motivations. Although throughout the play he identifies multiple reasons for wanting to sow disaster in Othello’s life, one can still leave the theatre (or the page) feeling that Iago’s actions were created by the closest thing to evil, to pure illogical malice, of which a human being is capable. As a reader, I identify Iago as the yardstick against which all other villains can be measured.
As my years at university concluded I wrote my thesis on religion in the time of Shakespeare – creating an obsession that quickly led to my owning a Shakespeare action figure, bobblehead and plush doll.
During and since uni I encountered many of the arguments that Shakespeare’s plays were written by others, and, though other bard lovers may gasp to hear it, it’s a debate that doesn’t really interest me. Although I’ve spent a fair bit of time with the history of the actual man, for me Shakespeare’s works have become almost more important symbolically. As a body of writing, they represent what the human mind can achieve with the written (and invented) word, works of truly enduring value and complexity that can still be mined for new meanings and interpretations four and a half centuries later (as evidenced by Eleanor Catton’s excellent 2014 New Zealand Book Council Lecture). Although I’ve read biographies, have even stood mere paces from his grave, honouring the birth of Shakespeare for me isn’t about the bones in the church at Stratford-upon-Avon, or even about re-reading the plays or the sonnets. It’s about reflecting on what writers are capable of, on what they strive to communicate with the world around them, on the power of their words to convey, elucidate, or shroud, regardless of whether they are encountered via the stage, on the leaves of a folio, or across the numbered pages of a mass market paperback.