This week marks 400 years since the death of William Shakespeare. The characters he invented, the worlds he created and his feelings and thoughts resonate within humanity forever. Nelson Mandela, not a native English speaker, born a son of a Xhosa chief in Transkei said: “Shakespeare always seems to have something to say to us.”
Shakespeare’s life as universal artist (poet and playwright), starts with the First Folio of 1623. His legacy includes introduction of new words (“equivocal”, “prodigious” and “antipathy”, were first used by Shakespeare).
His phrases have been used as titles of hundreds of books and films from Brave New World (Aldous Huxley) and The Sound and the Fury (William Faulkner) to The Glimpses of the Moon (Edith Wharton) and The Dogs of War (Frederick Forsyth).
Besides making the English language more dynamic, Shakespeare has tickled our imagination like no other playwright: Hamlet, Juliet’s Nurse, Macbeth, Mistress Quickly, Lear, Othello, Shylock, Portia, Prospero and Romeo … the list of classic archetypes goes on to the end (Macbeth), boasting characters perhaps closer to us than any others in the English litterature.
The motto of the Globe, his theatre, was Totus mundus agit histrionem (The whole world is a stage). The titles of his plays are so quintessentially English: As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing and All’s Well That Ends Well.
Typically, Shakespeare seems to have left the stage without looking back. He just retired to Stratford on Avon, worked a little, got drunk in the company of friends and died, having given all his possessions to Anne Hathaway, his wife.
Shakespeare has changed the English Language: he did what he wanted with the language, espousing Anglo-Saxon, continental and classical traditions with poetry, storytelling and artistic synthesis.
The colloquial gets mixed with Latin coinages making the English language more alive.
“Who’s there?” is the opening line of Shakespeare’s most famous play: Hamlet. “What a piece of work is a man!” exclaims Hamlet, in the narrative voice of the playwright.
Shakespeare’s Danish prince is the first western dramatic persona to be created as a man tormented by complex inner conflicts and desires. “To be, or not to be”, Hamlet’s contemplation of suicide, is a fabulous dramatic moment. Later, during the grave digging scene, “Alas, poor Yorick” connects high and low culture to mirror Shakespeare’s existential vision of human weaknesses. Othello (lust, jealousy, and betrayal), Macbeth (paranoid regicide), Romeo & Juliet (doomed love) and many of Shakespeare’s greatest plays were an instant hit with Elizabethan audiences.
Hollywood eagerly took up Shakespeare’s plots and characters. Great stars fought for the great roles: Laurence Olivier playing Henry V, Paul Robeson playing Othello, Orson Welles playing Falstaff, and John Gielgud playing Prospero. Macbeth inspired Akiro Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood; Gus van Sant remade Henry IV as My Own Private Idaho; and Ran is a classic Japanese homage to King Lear.
Siegmund Freud believed Shakespeare to be “the greatest of poets” and often used quotations from his works. Freud’s studies of duplicity, envy, desire, and conscience come directly from Shakespeare: “there’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face” or “the stroke of death is as a lover’s pinch, which hurts and is desired”. When Richard III is facing his downfall, he declares: “Conscience is but a word that cowards use, Devis’d at first to keep the strong in awe.”
Shakespeare’s dramatic clarity makes his work ideal for opera. Verdi adored his plays. Three of his best operas (Macbeth; Otello; Falstaff) are Shakespearean. West Side Story a direct uptake on Romeo and Juliet. In 1961, the film taken from the stage production became a massive hit. Maria was the modern day Juliet and Nathalie Wood was both Maria and the tragic lover from Verona in the film and in her earthly life.
Classical composers adored Shakespeare; think of Berlioz (The Tempest), Mendelssohn (Midsummer Night’s Dream), and Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev, both inspired by Romeo & Juliet. Shakespeare would have appreciated Cole Porter’s music for The Taming of the Shrew (renamed Kiss Me Kate).
So, next time you say “Etre ou ne pas être” remember, the question was first rhetorically asked around 400 years ago this week.