‘Yes, we can.’ Dominic Dromgoole, director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, says Barack Obama’s words inspired the fabulously ambitious plan to take Shakespeare round the world on a tour that has visited 197 countries and gripped and enthralled more than one hundred thousand people. Today, give or take a day or so, William Shakespeare might be celebrating his 452nd birthday, should there happen to be an afterlife and, if so, should it incline towards cakes and ale. Rather less cheerily, today is also the day (again, give or take a day or so) that Shakespeare left us for that party in the sky four hundred years ago.
We have talked before about the little we know about the life, and about the books that people have spun out of it. Today I think I want to tell you a story. This morning we held a party in our village hall here in NorthernReaderLand. People of all ages came together to drink coffee, eat cake and enjoy each other’s company. I had advertised this shindig as Shakespeare’s Birthday Party, and what I have found thrilling, wonderful and infinitely moving is the number of people who have come up to me in the street during the last couple of weeks and said, ‘I know a bank where the wild thyme blows’, or ‘the quality of mercy is not strained’, or ‘rough winds do shake the darling buds of may’. We have Shakespeare wrapped around the beautiful double helix of our DNA. Our tables this morning were festooned with snippets and quotes, and I wish you had been there with us to hear the joy and sense of ownership with which we read them out. ‘This is our voice,’ is what I heard, ‘and these are our words.’ Small wonder, then, that my new very small friend Emily, who helped blow out the candles, started us singing Happy Birthday to William and we all joined in.
So what is it about Shakespeare that grabs us, heart and soul? Well, for a start, there is so much of him. I bow to no-one in my admiration of his chums, but if we turn to John Webster, there are only two towering masterpieces, one other play and a handful of collaborative works. Thomas Middleton was more prolific, but again we really only have a handful of plays that are solely or principally his. Middleton, by the way, is particularly good for deflating the Romantic notion of Shakespeare as some sort of back-lit demi-god, penning his deathless lines alone and in a clean white shirt: among the plays for which we know Middleton to have been a co-writer we can list Timon of Athens and All’s Well That Ends Well, and probably Measure for Measure and Macbeth while we’re about it. Shakespeare is nonetheless very unusual indeed among his contemporaries for being credited with so much solo work. This was a time of astonishing demand, when the playhouses needed a new play every few days in the precious weeks when the weather, the plague and the powers-that-be allowed them to open. Get the public mood wrong, come up with a play that no-one wants to see, and ‘chaos is come again’ (Shakespeare’s good on chaos, on the wafer-thin line we teeter on between survival and oblivion, on the tiny gossamer wisps of hope that flicker past us). No wonder most of the acting companies went for the productivity – and the collective responsibility – of an in-house script-writing team.
What it must have been to have Shakespeare in the company! How quickly the Lord Chamberlain’s Men – who became the King’s Men when James VI/I pitched up in London – must have realised they had something special among them: a little goldmine who could be relied on to come up with the goods. We can see and hear that band of brothers in every line he writes for them. We know when they have a couple of boy actors, one noticeably tall and one noticeably small: you’ll find them playing Hermia and Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Beatrice and Hero in Much Ado About Nothing. We know when a new and different sort of comic actor arrives; once the playwright and musician Robert Armin joins them, Shakespeare’s clowns become philosopher-poets, melancholics who can sing – Touchstone in As You Like It, Feste in Twelfth Night. And, goodness me, we know they had a simply terrific actor who must have fired Shakespeare’s imagination, driving him to produce ever bigger and more complex roles that shape and define the modern English-speaking theatre. Imagine what it was to be Richard Burbage; to be handed the slips of paper, to be the first to give the lines sound, to make the writer hear what worked and what needed tweaking, what needed re-working, what needed scrapping. Imagine being the first Hamlet, the first Othello, the first Richard III, the first King Lear. Branagh, Olivier, Irving, Kean – they all trace their lineage on the stage back to Burbage.
And all this is to forget Shakespeare’s extraordinary other life as a published writer of poetry. It’s an odd and slightly paradoxical position that he occupies: writing elegant love poetry was seen as a gentlemanly or aristocratic accomplishment, but no gentleman would be seen dead publishing his work commercially. Your loss, of course, if a too-nice sense of social distinction lost you the astonishing pleasure of reading Shake-Speares Sonnets. The very form that he adopts, adapts and takes to unimaginable heights we now think of as the Shakespearean sonnet: four lines setting up an idea –
When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate
Another four lines exploring that idea and taking us down a particular path within it –
Wishing me like one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Now, here it comes, the twist, the turn, the moment when Shakespeare uses one of his battery of huge ‘little words’: but, and, then, for, yet. It’s ‘yet’ in this one, which is Sonnet 29, by the way. So here come four lines which turn the corner and tell us what the poem is really talking about –
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
Oh hurray! It turns out, dearest reader, that it’s all about you, the person at the heart of this poem and this poet. Drive on now to the final couplet; two rhyming lines that say it all:
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
Now that, friends, Romans, countrymen, gentles all; that’s the way to do it.