Why we should all join Shakespeare’s birthday party

William Shakespeare William Shakespeare

Monday, April 21, 2014
5:00 PM

Marking the 450th birthday on Wednesday of our greatest writer William Shakespeare, Trevor Heaton looks at the enduring legacy of the Bard - and some of his Norfolk connections.

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Joseph Chance as Puck surrounded by the Propeller company in A Midsummer Night's DreamJoseph Chance as Puck surrounded by the Propeller company in A Midsummer Night's Dream

It’s always struck me as a bit odd that we don’t have a special day to celebrate the genius of William Shakespeare. After all, can you imagine other countries failing in that department, had the Bard of Avon been born, say, in France or Germany?

But perhaps we don’t need to. Because the truth is that Shakespeare is with us every single day of our lives. If you thought your only interaction with him was distantly-remembered school days, then think again.

He created hundreds of new words and phrases that we use almost every time we open our mouths, and it’s high time we acknowledged that.

‘High time’ - actually, that was one of them. And ‘one fell swoop’, ‘heart’s content’, ‘fool’s paradise’, ‘sea change’, ‘sorry sight’, ‘fair play’, ‘foul play’ and many, many more.

Shakespeare advocate Peter Wilson, chief executive of Norwich Theatre Royal.Shakespeare advocate Peter Wilson, chief executive of Norwich Theatre Royal.

But there’s more to him than that - much more. And thereby hangs a tale (yet another one. I’ll stop there.)

For he’s the most written about, the most ‘dissected’, the most quoted, the most adapted, the most satirised writer in history.

He inspired the Royal Shakespeare Company - and the Reduced one; the brilliance of Laurence Olivier - and the brilliant send-up of Olivier by Peter Sellers. Every actor worth their salt wants to play the big Shakespearean roles, and we queue round the block to see them. We want to see the greatest perform the greatest.

He wrote the best set-pieces of drama ever written. Mark Anthony’s funeral oration for the murdered Caesar (‘Friends, Romans, Countrymen...’), Hamlet’s To Be or Not To Be, Henry V’s rallying cry to his troops... there are so many. And what characters. Only Charles Dickens has come close to having such a memorable roll-call.

And for a passionate advocate, look no further than Norwich Theatre Royal chief executive Peter Wilson. It’s a rare season indeed at the theatre that doesn’t see a Shakespeare adaptation or re-interpretation, such as the recent Propeller theatre visit, next month’s Northern Ballet take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and – coming up in September – a blockbuster production of West Side Story, inspired, of course, by Romeo and Juliet.

“Those of us who’ve seen Propeller’s Shakespeare productions (most recently The Comedy of Errors and A Midsummer Night’s Dream) don’t need to be told why Shakespeare endures,” Mr Wilson said.

“His plots are mostly immaculate, his titles perfect, his characters enduringly fascinating, his interest in and portrayal of women unmatched for 250 years in either direction, his grasp of human nature wisely – though unwaveringly – judgemental, his dramatic touch sure and purposeful.

“He provides the greatest and most numerous springboards in the English dramatic world for directors, actors, musicians and audiences.

“On top of all this, some of which I proudly admit is personal prejudice, who else writes a language – and so much of it – that is at once muscular, lyrical and endlessly inventive?”

And behind it all stands the enigmatic feature of Shakespeare himself. For all the hundreds of thousands of books and articles written about his life, the truth is why have only a few scraps of information about Shakespeare. The rest is speculation – and, boy, have people speculated.

For example, as well as millions of fans, Shakespeare has also attracted English literature’s greatest conspiracy theory: Did he really write the plays?

We won’t get into the complicated arguments here (it’s only Monday and your heads would probably explode; mine certainly would) but there’s a Norfolk link here. In 1998 Northrepps writer Verily Anderson sold the rights to Hollywood for her book which had argued the case for the plays being written by Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.

It took 13 years to come to fruition, but in 2011 the film Anonymous was finally released, starring Rhys Ifans. It’s fair to say that film was comfortably eclipsed at the box office by the earlier crowd-pleaser Shakespeare in Love, featuring Gwyneth Paltrow’s famous beach walk at our very own Holkham. And so, another Norfolk connection.

Ironically, one of the arguments in favour of Shakespeare’s authorship comes from a pamphlet put together by a bitter enemy – from Norwich. Fellow Elizabethan dramatist and writer Robert Greene complained that this ‘Shakes-scene’ was just an ‘upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers’. His beef was that this son of a Midlands glover should dare to think he could write as well as university-trained playwrights.

He could, though. Rather better, as posterity has proved.

A more famous Norwich link came in 1599 when Will Kemp, actor, dancer and clown and business partner of Shakespeare, performed his celebrated ‘Nine Daies Wonder’ dance from London to the city. He leapt over the wall of St John’s Maddermarket to celebrate his feat.

A fitting place to do it, because the Maddermarket Theatre, which sprang up nearby in the 1920s, was formed to put on every one of the plays, and managed the feat by 1933.

Its charismatic founder, the wonderfully-named Nugent Monck, told a conference in 1957 that swotting up on Shakespeare in the classroom was no substitute for hearing the words in performance. And if you slogged through dour Shakespeare classes at school, you might well agree with Mr Monck. Not all of us were lucky enough to have such a charismatic English teacher as I did (thank you, Mr Phillips).

But chances are you will have grown to appreciate his plots and his language ever since without really realising it.

Intriguingly, some of our Norfolk ancestors might even have seen the writer-actor perform. There is a long tradition in King’s Lynn that Shakespeare played there when he was a touring actor, in the Guildhall of St George.

In 2012 Dr Matthew Woodcock, Senior Lecturer, School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing at UEA, revealed new research which supported the theory that Shakespeare appeared in 1592 or 1593 as part of the touring Earl of Pembroke’s Men.

And there may be a further, extraordinary, connection between the Lynn stage of the 1590s and the Bard of Avon. A century ago historian Henry Hillen mentioned the tradition – first recorded in print in 1612 – involving another touring troupe, the Earl of Sussex’s Players.

They were performing the old play The History of Fryer Francis (not by Shakespeare), which featured a plot about an unfaithful wife being haunted by the ghost of her murdered husband, when a woman in the audience screamed out in horror: “Oh my husband, my husband! I see the ghost of my husband fiercely threatening and menacing me!”

She then broke down and admitted she had secretly poisoned her own spouse a few years earlier. If this outburst really did happen, then it surely likely that the actors would have spread the story when they met other thespians.

Including Shakespeare? Because in Hamlet (Act II, Scene 2) written a few years later, he says:

“I have heard/ That guilty creatures sitting at a play,/ Have by the very cunning of the scene/ Been struck so to the soul, that presently/ They have proclaimed their malefactions.”

(Talking of Hamlet, that baffling line about being able to tell a ‘hawk from a handsaw’ makes perfect sense if you substitute the near-Norfolk soundalike ‘harnser’ [heron]. And it also shows that words in ‘our’ dialect must have been more widespread hundreds of years ago.)

More Norfolk connections come with his drunken, bawdy knight Falstaff based – extremely loosely, so scholars believe – on our own Sir John Falstolf, a hero of Agincourt, who later built Caister Castle and became one of the country’s leading landowners. And Agincourt also leads us to the play Henry V, where another brave real-life Norfolk knight, ‘good old Sir Thomas Erpingham’, has a walk-on part in the action.

And so we turn finally to the big question: why does his legacy live on? There are so many potential answers. But perhaps it is because he holds up a mirror to every new generation, his brilliant and powerful language, plots and characters finding echoes in all of us.

For Peter Wilson it’s even more than that. “We all live within huge political entities – nations, regions, parties and interests, global movements and beliefs – that influence us in ways we can scarcely understand as they buffet us, our actions and our options.

“Shakespeare invented the dramatic vocabulary that shows us we can inhabit such a world while time sweeps us all forward,” he pointed out.

“Henry V comforting the English camp before Agincourt, ordering the death of Bardolph, and wooing the French Princess, gives potent illustrations of the difficulties of resolving the internal conflicts that we all suffer in trying to make our world coherent.”

So happy birthday then, and let’s raise a glass on Wednesday to William Shakespeare – born April 23 1564... and destined to live forever.

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