This year there will be commemorations all across the country and also the world no doubt, of the 400th anniversary of the death our greatest poet and playwright, William Shakespeare.
From parades to special productions of his plays the list of tributes to and celebrations of this extraordinary man are legion.
40 years ago on my first visit to Stratford-on Avon – as well as buying a ‘Macbeth Rules Ok’ T-Shirt (the follies of youth) – I do remember seeing in one of the numerous gift shops a figurine of Shakespeare. The plaque below this read: ‘Shakespeare – next to God he created most’.
This often quoted comment was made by Alexandre Dumas, the creator of the Three Musketeers and many other great novels.
What actually does make Shakespeare the focal point of unequalled praise from the great and the good for the last four centuries?
While I ponder on this I have to say that I can totally understand why some people just don’t get him. The sight of someone in a ruff or breeches declaiming loudly in blank verse can send many scuttling for the exits.
I think some of the problem starts in school and when I say this I appreciate I am basing my opinions on the classroom experience of the 1970s.
I can still hear one of my friends trying not to giggle as a boy read from The Merchant of Venice. The line ‘with my wind cooling my broth’ was too much for the class of 14-year-olds.
The heart of the problem I believe is that Shakespeare needs to be seen and heard. Otherwise it’s a bit like studying Mozart by reading the score.
One of the turning points in my life came when my dad took me, when I was 14, to see Laurence Olivier’s Richard III, which had just been re-released in cinemas.
Then, 30 seconds in and I was hooked. Afterwards I rushed home, picked up my dad’s copy of The Complete works to check that the words I had heard spoken – and amazingly had understood – were the same as those on the page in front of me.
They were and I never looked back.
Shakespeare needs to be performed and performed well by those who also truly understand it. Those with this gift can unlock its true beauty and humanity. After all when it was first written it was meant for everyone.
And what do we know of Shakespeare the man? Very little – in fact I think someone once said that we could write the facts we are absolutely certain of about him on the back of a postage stamp!
Whether it’s a great film or TV interpretation or you’re lucky enough to have the opportunity to see a live production, there’s never been a better time to brush up your Shakespeare than 2016.