400 years of wonderful words…

Celebrating the anniversary of someone’s death always seems a slightly maudlin subject, but with someone like Shakespeare, I think we can safely say that enough time has passed for this to be a joyful celebration of all he brought to the world.

Hamlet_Branagh_second scene

Full disclosure, I’m an English scholar and I have always loved Shakespeare – despite the sometimes atrocious way it is taught in schools – (reciting character analyses by rote until you know every single thing to write in an exam question without any real understanding of character development (Bottom in A Midsummer Nights’ Dream anyone?)). But – despite this – I was blessed with a mostly enriching and enlivened journey through Shakespeare’s best works – and my memories of studying, and falling in love with, Hamlet for my A-Levels will never leave me. It’s true. My first love was a 400 year old dead prince. Go figure.

“There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

If you don’t know the play, you should. There is something heart-wrenchingly beautiful about Hamlet. About this young, decent man, trying to find his way in the world, but orphaned, traumatized, alone, he gets so lost. Watching this happen on stage, knowing what will come, despite his best efforts, is incredibly moving, and his death in the last moments of the play is extremely powerful. No wonder that it is the one role most actors wish to play in their career.

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When Hamlet’s successor Fortinbras arrives as Hamlet dies,  seeing the dead body of this noble prince, the waste of life, the sadness of the ending, Fortinbras says: “Let four captains bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage / For he was likely, had he been put on, to have proved most royally / And for his passage the soldiers’ music and the rites of war speak loudly for him…” It is a fitting tribute and a beautiful ending to the play.

And actually – before I fell in love with Hamlet, there was of course Romeo. We were studying Romeo & Juliet for our GCSEs, during which time Baz Luhrman’s wonderful film version hit cinemas, meaning our entire teenage fantasy life was taken up, not with the likes of Take That and Boyzone, but with a gorgeous, young Leonardo Dicaprio, speaking beautiful words with passion and poise, swimming around with an angel in a courtyard swimming pool, doing brave things for love.

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“Come, gentle night; come, loving, black-browed night; Give me my Romeo; and, when I shall die, Take him and cut him out in little stars, And he will make the face of heaven so fine That all the world will be in love with night…”

There is so much of the epic, the dramatic, the majestic about Shakespeare, but then too, so much of the underdog, so much quiet wisdom, so many complex characters with a lesson to teach us all. The longer you study it, the more you discover, and it is a testament to the richness of his works, the strength of his writing, the universal themes throughout, that his plays remain relevant, current and exciting today.

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Some of his phrases and writings remain some of the most beautiful in the English language – I never tire of hearing this from Macbeth, which talks about how we as humans are always looking back, despite the relentless march of time. And how we must always make stories and dramas out of the little things that happen, attaching meaning and agenda, where so often there isn’t any….

“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”

And, at the heart of so many of his plays – so many powerful women too. Shakespeare 400 years ago had more brilliant female roles for women than Hollywood today.

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This article brilliantly outlines some of them, but here’s my favourites:

  • Portia (The Merchant of Venice) – who doesn’t admire the incredible Portia? Intelligent and courageous, she runs the household following her fathers’ death, masquerades as a male judge, oversees the trial of her suitor, shows incredible judgement and wisdom, and eventually saves his life. Nice, for a day’s work.
  • Beatrice (Much Ado about Nothing) – a real feminist of her time, she is allowed such dynamic, feisty language, has real depth, wit and intelligence, and she manages to dominate a play for which she is not the lead. Plus, when played by Emma Thompson, she rocks.
  • Viola  (Twelfth Night) – complex and contradictory, often considered both sexually ambiguous and brilliantly devious, she cleverly twists and turns the plot to her own ends, outsmarting everyone else and engineering a marriage to the man she loves – on her terms. Genius.

OpheliaSuzman1965

If you want to indulge in some Shakespeare, throughout the rest of April and into May, there are hundreds of Shakespeare events going on across the country, more details here.

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