Happy Birthday Shakespeare!

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.

John the Baptist Leonardo Da Vinci

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.”

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2 Responses to Happy Birthday Shakespeare!

  1. exiledtyke says:

    I love Macbeth first encountering the play as one of my O-level books. My school arranged a trip to Stratford to see, I think the RSC, production at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, and some elements of that production live with me to this day, sadly for all the wrong reasons. Banquo’s ghost was never actually seen on stage being represented by a pulsing overhead light, a concept which the several hundred 15 and 16 years olds gathered there found hilarious with each appearance by the ghost being greeted by louder and louder laughter. Sad isn’t it.
    How can you not like Romeo and Juliet?
    My favourite Shakespeare plays are probably the 15 Minute Hamlet (OK, technically it is by Tom Stoppard but I’m sure you will allow me the connection!) which I saw performed by the Reduced Shakespeare Company https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BvPdWcCHkxM, and last, but by no means least, A Midsummer Night’s Dream which is probably my all time favourite.

    • Wow, that’s a shame about Banquo’s ghost. I’ve heard of productions where he’s simply a hallucination of Macbeth, but I don’t like that idea very much. I think Banquo should appear onstage. It’s sad that such a tense moment should inspire laughter.

      I’ll have to write a post detailing my feelings about Romeo and Juliet another time.

      A Midsummer Night’s dream was the third Shakespeare play I read, and it is truly delightful.

      Oh, thanks for the link of the Fifteen Minute Hamlet! I’ve never seen it. I have seen The Complete Works of Shakespeare (abridged) and they perform Hamlet backwards in there. The ghost runs onstage holding a sign saying “OOB!”

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