Saturday is the 452nd anniversary of what we believe was the birth date of William Shakespeare, and the 400th anniversary of what we know was the date of his death. The assumption is that he was born on April 23, 1564, not because there is a definitive record of his birth, but because we do have a record of his baptism occurring on April 26, and children at that time were typically baptized when they were three days old. If indeed he was born on April 23 in Stratford-upon-Avon, then it’s extremely poignant that he also died on April 23, also in Stratford-upon-Avon, in 1616. He was only 52, which wasn’t so young back then, but seems awfully young to me today.
And despite not traveling far in his lifetime, despite not having a lot of experience with women or love (at least of which we have any real evidence), despite living in a time where his options were pretty limited, he turns out to be one of the most complex, most amazing, most fantastically talented people this world has ever produced, assuming he is what we popularly believe him to be. Tomorrow, on his birthday, I will not be entertaining notions of his being a fake, or a front, or a forgery, or a combination of people – not tomorrow.
Tomorrow, I will celebrate the audacity of human existence. At the sublimity of a shared culture, from the dusty past to this very day, rooted more deeply than what scholarship can claim. Tomorrow I will celebrate the marrow of our literary bones that is William Shakespeare.
But today, I want to share with you something extraordinary. In 2012, the same year that the Summer Olympic Games were held in London, the Royal Shakespeare Company produced (in collaboration with many leading UK and international arts organizations) the World Shakespeare Festival, touted as “the biggest celebration of Shakespeare ever staged.” As part of the celebration, a digital platform, christened “My Shakespeare”, was launched to spark a global digital conversation and to create a world view of Shakespeare “through a twenty-first century lens.”
One of the commissions for this digital platform went to British spoken artist and poet Kate Tempest. Then 26 years of age, Kate wrote a poem entitled “My Shakespeare” that evokes the impact the Bard has had not only on scholars, but in the everyday language and humanity found in and influenced by English speaking peoples:
…he has become a poet who poetics have embedded themselves deep within the fabric of our language,
he’s in our mouths,
his words have tangled round our own and given rise
to expressions so effective in expressing how we feel,
we can’t imagine how we’d feel without them.
The words are wonderful, but believe me, the performance of her poem is even more powerful. Kate’s rhythm and modern cadence, the physical manifestation of her words, the lyrical yet cocksure emotion in her voice, feels not only descendant of Shakespeare, but as if she harbors a kindred soul with the Bard himself. Sometime in the next day – maybe today because it’s right here, or tomorrow because that is the historical marker of the man – I urge you to take the 2:30 minutes to listen to Kate Tempest rap out how Shakespeare “is in our mouths.” It is a sublimely apt acknowledgement of the man and his works.
I have no idea if William Shakespeare was a happy man; I hope he was. I have no idea if he knew just how good he was; if he really knew or if he just blustered that he was, or if his talent isolated him. I wonder if he had doubts, if he looked to the sky and despaired of his place in the universe, or if he often found himself transcendently happy. In the end, all we have is his words, those words that have touched so many of us.
And all I have left, is gratitude. “I can no other answer make but thanks, And thanks, and ever thanks.” (Twelfth Night)
So, thanks, Will. And thanks, and ever thanks.
~ Sharon Browning