April 23 is the date traditionally observed as the birthday of William Shakespeare, an occasion celebrated wherever English is spoken with performances, readings, parades and other events. In Oxford today there was a parade and performances by school children. At Vanderbilt University in Tennessee there are jugglers, troubadors, puppet shows and performances of favorite scenes from the plays. Pittsburgh has declared April 22-28 "The Week of Will," with events ranging from plays in parks to trivia contests. Coinicidentally (or not), two weeks ago Indian director Vishal Bhardwaj announced he'll adapt Twelfth Night for the big screen.
But some of you may be wondering, why all this for a man who died over 450 years ago? Some people find Shakespeare difficult, even impenetrable. And that's really too bad. This nobody from a provincial town (which is how most people thought of him during his lifetime) transformed English, giving it a vividness, beauty and bite our language had never had before. And every day most people quote Shakespeare without knowing it.
Maybe you were the sort of person who liked to lie low in English class (a sorry sight, I'm sure), because the difficulty of Shakespeare's language set your teeth on edge, and you had a stony-hearted teacher who liked to call on you, even though you thought it was all a verbal wild goose chase. And when you finished school, you thought good riddance, I’m done with Shakespeare.
Well, the more fool you: you use Shakespeare’s English every day, and it’s high time you gave the Devil his due. Let’s say all of a sudden you find yourself in a pickle, or facing something so scary it makes your hair stand on end, and then as good luck would have it your problems vanish into thin air: you’re quoting Shakespeare.
If you’ve ever had a guest who’s eaten you out of house and home and you waited for them to leave with bated breath (and that seemed to take forever and a day), you’re quoting Shakespeare.
Now I’m not saying Shakespeare is the be all and the end all. And I don’t expect this blog post to transform you into a Shakespeare enthusiast in the twinkling of an eye, so don’t feel defensive and get up in arms. I know people who are exceedingly well read who will never pick up Macbeth or Hamlet. And that's fine: you can’t just go and read everything that other people consider important: that way madness lies.
But really, if you read much Shakespeare's hard to escape. His influence on fiction has made for some strange bedfellows: Charles Dickens, Jane Smiley, Frederick Forsyth, Alduous Huxley, Patricia Highsmith, Angela Carter, John Green--their work all bears Shakespeare's stamp.
At this point you’re probably thinking this is too much of a good thing or that I’m laying it on with a trowel. And frankly I could do this all the live long day. That's a foregone conclusion.
So now I’ll stop.
Or let’s just say the game is up.