Wishing Will ‘happy birthday‘ today would cause an outcry from people who know me and my pedantic ways … Yes, yes, yes, baptised on 26 April, no real proof of birthday, and all that. Get on with it!
Today, I’ll settle for celebrating his life – at least we can say for certain that he died on 23 April. Four hundred and two years now. I wanted to type the words rather than the numbers to begin to understand what that time period actually means.
And, although the beginning was a bit ragged, I think I’m correct in saying today also marks the tortured Frankestein-style labour of The Boar’s Head as a project, which pretty much coincided with the 400th anniversary celebrations. I remember running a series of assemblies at school to mark it. In the words of Fat Boy Slim, ‘We’ve come a long long way together’ since then: in fact, today is post number 218 …
Although I’ve never really checked out this theory, it seems to me that there are more biographies of Shakespeare than any other single historical person. Setting aside the Bible as not really being a biography, he’s even more famous than Jesus in this respect, as John Lennon might say. Or deny saying.
Perhaps the most amazing, amusing thing is that we actually know so little about the subject of all these biographies. My favourite two volumes spend a lot of time reminding us of this – Bill Bryson does so with his usual gentle humour, and his book is a great read.
But today I turn to Ivor Brown, Shakespeare, (Reprint Society: London, 1951, first published 1949). This is an amusing British ancestor of Bryson’s book – acknowledging our ignorance but then full of carefully explained, ‘educated guesses’. Brown’s writing style appeals to me – here are two quotations taken from his first chapter, ‘The Shakepeare Wonder’ …
No other writer has evoked a tithe of the editions, commentaries, emendations, speculations, and down-right lunacies that have been begotten by the Shakespeare Wonder. Shakespeare stands alone in his spawning of cranks and bores as well as of erudite scholars and devotees of genius.
Another aspect of the Wonder has been the annexation of Shakespeare as their particular prophet by almost every sect of worshippers, philosophers and politicians. Saint and devil have vied in quoting Shakespeare to their purpose. […] Shakespeare has given to every type of person the perfect line wherewith to summarise and to extol the drift of his opinion and the practice of his life.
The first amused me (as well as causing some anxiety about whether I was a ‘crank’ or ‘bore’), and the second sums up very nicely the universal, timeless appeal of Shakespeare. His words are infinitely malleable, and everyone (apart from some of my students, granted) respects him and believes he adds gravitas to what they want to express.
At the most basic level, though, often he simply puts our emotions into words better than we can, and we feel a sense of comfort in the notion that someone understands how we feel.
Surely THAT’s worth celebrating.