The Shakespeare Quadricentennial and Why I Adore Him

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Hamlet & Ophelia annual figurines from Royal Copenhagen and the four new Pelican Shakespeare books with artwork by Manuja Waldia.

Now isn’t this a cool word? ‘Quadricentennial’. Ah Latin! But what else is cool today? Well, of course everyone’s favourite playwriter, Bill the Bard’s 400th deathday party (that sounds a bit weird, doesn’t it? But fun fact: it’s a Harry Potter wiki! I also really love Tennessee Williams but that’s another story).

However, it is today 400 years since William Shakespeare died in his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon (such a lovely town!) and left us with scraps and pieces of his plays and poems. Actually, most of his most famous plays would not have been known today if not for the posthumous collections of them referred to as the folios. In fact, not very many of those folios exist but there have just been a newly discovered one! Also, Shakespeare was not even that popular after his death until the Romantic movement in the beginning of the 1800s, where the likes of Shelley, Keats, and Byron started raving about him and made everyone fall in love all over again with his magical words.

Today, if you study English at least, you cannot get around him. Period. He has influenced so much of our literature and culture in general, also here in Denmark, and despite everyone in Hamlet behaving like lunatics, we are a tad bit proud to have such a connection to Shakespeare. This year also marks to bicentennial of the Shakespeare Festival at Kronborg Castle in Elsinore, the world’s oldest Shakespeare tradition. I hope to attend the visiting production of the Globe Theatre in August there and see The Two Gentlemen of Verona (why it is not Hamlet is beyond me; a bit bummed by that to be honest).

But why is Shakespeare still cool? In Denmark when taking A level English in high school, you must study a play by him. It is decreed by law. Seriously! I recall that my own class studied Macbeth and I also remember at that moment that I wanted to study English at university. Because this moved me. This made my heart skip beats and my mind going in a whirl-wind. I read somewhere that when things are written in iambic pentameter, as his plays and sonnets are, they are written to your heartbeat. Your heart is connected to the words and you become invested, and that makes so much sense to me. Whenever I read Shakespeare’s plays, I favour reading out loud. To hear the words yes, but also really to feel them on my tongue and in my system. To breathe life into paper. Does that sound crazy? Maybe. But I also think it is part of the power.

Another powerful aspect of Shakespeare’s allure is how different and versatile his characters and plays are. There is one to suit any taste, because contrary to what some people think, that he is all ‘high-brow-upper-class-posh-stiff-upper-lip’ and all, Shakespeare tells just as many fart jokes as existential monologues. He has a glorious glossary of insults and low blow references which is an absolute delight to read (and say out loud!). Many scholars try to make him very elitist and posh, and also saying that the man we know as William Shakespeare is NOT the one actually writing the plays, but until there is irrefutable proof that he did not, then I will decide to believe that it was indeed possible for a glove-maker’s son to become one of the greatest word wielders and society commentators in the world. Because he did work as that, not just for entertainment which he certainly did as well, but he showed them and us what his world was like and what it could be. He wrote about high and low, men and women, foreign and domestic, internal and external affairs. That is why it is so easy to connect with Shakespeare, because you can always find something of his that suits and represents you in many ways.

I personally still have a long way to go before having read all of his plays but from what I have read so far, I love the ambiguity he often presents in his characters. More often than not, I have found more die-hard interpretations from scholars than what the play actually invites to. That is a problem because it alienates. Yes, context is key to understand the circumstances form which these plays were written but that does not mean they must have been written with the same mindset. Given the variety of themes and characters in his plays, I should find it very surpricing that Shakespeare was not capable of imagining for example other power structures. That is also why I delight in reading and studying many of his female characters and not just ranting about the misogyny, like in Taming of the Shrew. Just as many of the male characters show men at their worst (also in TotS) so are many female characters shown in all our glorious variety, from Ophelia to Goneril to Violet to Lady Macbeth etc.

That is perhaps the one reason why I will continue to read him again and again. His characters are strangely relatable despite the surreal settings or plots. This together with his heartbeat writing, I fall in love with the stories and the worlds over and over again. And something tells me, the world will continue to do just that for yet another four hundred years.


Dansk:

Idag er det præcist 400 år siden verdens nok mest kendte og indflydelsesrige manuskriptforfatter døde. William Shakespeare er navnet hvis der skulle herske tvivl. Hvad næsten ville være for usandsynligt, da vi her i lille Danmark jo har et meget tæt forhold til ham da ét af hans mest kendte stykker er om den tragiske danske prins Hamlet. Jeg vil ikke nægte, at jeg er en lille smule stolt over det, til trods for at alle i stykket er mere eller mindre tossede.

I år fejrer Shakespeare festivalen på Kronborg Slot også jubilæum, 200 år, hvilket gør den til verdens ældste Shakespeare tradition. Og det var også først i begyndelsen af 1800-tallet, i den romantiske periode, at Shakespeare blev populær og starten på den ufattelige mængde analyser, fortolkninger og hvad ved jeg begyndte. Ellers syntes mange dannede mennesker dengang ikke at han var værd at beskæftige sig med! Det kan man jo næsten ikke få ind i sit hoved taget i betragtning af at eksempelvis gymnasieloven for højniveau engelsk siger, at man skal læse et stykke af ham. Jeg læste selv Macbeth dengang, og jeg kan huske, at det var i den periode, at jeg selv besluttede mig for at læse engelsk på universitetet. Der var bare noget større og mere intimt ved at læse ham end jeg havde oplevet før med litteratur.

Jeg læste et sted, at når man skriver noget i iambisk pentameter, som alle Shakespeares skuespil og sonetter er skrevet i, så er det skrevet til takten af ens hjertebanken. Om det er korrekt ved jeg ikke, men det giver god mening for mig da jeg ofte gerne læser skuespillene højt og på den måde hører og føler ordene i stedet for blot at se dem. Jeg føler mig i hvert fald tættere knyttet og mere investeret i både plot og karakter ved at mærke ordene på tungen.

Den store variation af temaer og karaktertyper er også en af de ting, som glæder mig ved Shakespeare. Der er vitterligt noget for enhver smag, og dem, som påstår at han kun er for de “fine” har ikke læst nok af ham. For der er lige så mange prutte-vittigheder som filosofiske monologer, og Shakespeare formåede netop at bevæge sig i alle sociale klasser og forstod mange mennesketyper og lod dem alle få plads i sine skuespil. Det er måske hans største force og hvad der gør, at vi stadigt 400 år efter læser og studerer ham. Jeg tror i hvert fald på, at han bliver læst om 400 år endnu.

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About Ann-Cathrine 39 Articles
Established 1987 in Aarhus, Denmark. MA degree in English and Art History from Aarhus University, Denmark. Loves books, art, writing, coffee, dandelions, paper dolls, and haute couture.