Today is Shakespeare’s 450th birthday. As a writer, I should be jealous of Shakespeare. And yet, I’m not. I am just so thankful that he existed at all.
There is no one like Shakespeare in the English language. I criticized Harold Bloom’s deification of Shakespeare and Hamlet in a previous article, and yet it is tempting to a native English speaker. (I had least have the advantage of being an American. It places just a little bit more distance between me and him. His language is my language, but his country is not my country.)
I experienced this temptation in a recent biography I started about Shakespeare. I stopped reading it because it was far more speculative than grounded in actual evidence. (Of course, there isn’t much information about his life, giving rise to the authorship controversy.) Still, I had a thought while I was reading a portion about the death of Christopher Marlowe. The writer pointed out that, with Marlowe’s death, Shakespeare had no rivals. In effect, Marlowe’s death cleared the way for Shakespeare.
At that moment, Marlowe seemed less like Marlowe and more like John the Baptist.
In the Gospels. John the Baptist is described as “The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” His death also heralds the beginning of Christ’s ministry. “I must decrease so that he might increase.” At the moment when the biographer described how Marlowe’s death cleared the way for Shakespeare, I thought I could hear Marlowe say, “There comes one mightier than I after me, the lace of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose.”
Momentary Shakespearolatry aside, Happy Birthday Shakespeare. I celebrate you existing, I celebrate you being part of history, and thank you so much for all you have given us. We will never be able to repay you for your generosity.
Now, for some music. I hate Romeo and Juliet, and I firmly believe that we do great violence to our American youth by forcing this play down their throats. Indeed, I don’t blame young people for hating Shakespeare, considering that Romeo and Juliet is usually the first play that American students read. (It ought to be Macbeth, as someone once stated.) I was fortunately spared this torment. I was actually introduced to “Double Double Toil and Trouble” in the second grade. (I felt so grown up.) In the seventh grade, my class read Much Ado About Nothing.
However, the great thing about Romeo and Juliet is that it has spawned some pretty spectacular music.
Here is Prokofiev’s Montagues and Capulets.
Here is Maria from West Side Story, unquestionably the greatest musical ever made. This song frequently makes me tear up, and has for over ten years, since I was in production of it in high school.
Now, for better Shakespeare, I give you “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow,” in all its nihilistic glory.
Here’s Ian McKellen’s version, which I will shortly watch for the first time.
Here is Kenneth Branagh’s “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow.”
Here is Patrick Stewart’s “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow.”