Shakespeare's Birthday

Reflecting on Shakespeare’s 460 year legacy and how his timeless plays continue to impact the world of theater.

There is no disputing that Shakespeare packed a lot into his fifty-two years.  Were he alive today Britain’s most famous playwright would be around four hundred and sixty years old this month.  His legacy lives on in his words, in his plays, in the ether, and in the air that we breathe such is his astute perception of human behavior that we keep coming back for more. With an estimated vocabulary of twenty-seven thousand words his power of language and self-expression is unique and unrivalled. 

But what lies behind The Bard’s endurability and why does his work continue to resonate in our fast-paced and ever-changing world?  According to Michael Billington OBE, esteemed theatre critic of Britain’s Guardian Newspaper for almost fifty years (1971-2019), the answer is simple, “Aside from language, character, and form, it has to do with the endless adaptability of the plays.  Hamlet is a case in point.  How you see it depends on time and place.  For the Victorians, it was primarily a study of a gloomy prince.  For us, it is much more a study of how to survive in a corrupt society.  But the play also changes depending on where it is performed” he says.  Mr Billington should know.  He has seen both Hamlet and King Lear well over fifty times each.

From The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Hamlet starring Paapa Essiedu

An excavation of the human psyche.  A many-layered examination of humanity.  A journey into the recesses of what it means to live, experience, and feel.  Most of us can relate to a multitude of human emotion from joy, happiness, pain, heartache, and grief.  But when Shakespeare writes about it and we see his plays in performance, such emotions somehow spring to life in a more pertinent way forcing us to confront our own human experience.  Whether it is Juliet’s goodbye to Romeo (Act II Sc II), “Parting is such sweet sorrow”, Hamlet’s contemplation, “To be, or not to be: that is the question” (Act III Sc I), or The Prince of Morocco to Portia in The Merchant of Venice (Act II Sc VII), “All that glisters (glitters) is not gold”, Shakespeare has the ability to touch our human experience in a vivid and powerful way.

Romeo and Juliet

From The Globe’s production of Romeo and Juliet starring Adetomiwa Edun and Ellie Kendrick 

“At his best Shakespeare has the power to get under the skin of his audience and tap into areas of feeling and experience that they are barely aware of,” says British actor and writer, Oliver Ford Davies OBE, in his superlative book on Shakespeare in performance, Performing Shakespeare. “His characters are rarely incoherent: they mostly speak in a very clear and structured way, not just because Shakespeare wants to communicate the story to the audience, but because the characters themselves take pride in expressing ideas passionately and intelligently – clarity is everything”.

Delivering and interpreting Shakespeare’s language means different things to different people.  To Michael Billington, it has to do with finding the right word to stress.  For George Peck, Principal and Head of Acting at The Oxford School of Drama for more than thirty years, one of the most highly regarded drama schools in the UK that counts Claire Foy (The Crown, The Girl in The Spider’s Web) among past alumni, “Young actors need to experience what it is like to wrestle with language that is unfamiliar. Shakespeare, because of his humanity provides the ideal opportunity to do this. The actor must find the physical sensation of the language.”  It figures that, ultimately, if the actor is clear on Shakespeare’s meaning, then the audience will be too.

The Royal Shakespeare Company, founded in 1961 in Shakespeare’s birthplace, Stratford-Upon-Avon, by Sir Peter Hall is a creative hub for Shakespearean activity.  Opening around twenty productions each year – not just Shakespeare but also contemporary playwright’s work as well, it welcomes around one million visitors.  Sir Gregory Doran, Artistic Director for ten years (2012-2022) took a leap of faith when he decided to direct all thirty-six plays in Shakespeare’s first folio during his tenure. “I wanted each one to be an event,” he says. 

Soon after becoming Artistic Director Sir Gregory decided to explore Shakespeare’s second history tetralogy.  “Instead of presenting them immediately as a cycle, we would examine them in their own right.” When he cast Scottish actor, David Tennant, one of the best-known faces on British Television thanks to Doctor Who, as Richard II Theater Land sat up. “David always navigates Shakespeare’s precarious line between comedy and tragedy masterfully” Doran explains in his book, My Shakespeare; A Director’s Journey through the First Folio.  Described as a, “timelessly political work” its themes of flawed leadership and vanity will perhaps always be eerily prescient.  


From The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Richard II starring David Tennant 

Other works by Gregory Doran on Marquee TV include The Tempest (2016), King Lear (2016), Henry IV (2014), and Henry V (2015)

But it is not just the British who do Shakespeare well.  Indeed, Shakespeare comes in many different shapes, sizes, and nationalities including ballet, opera, animation, musical theatre, and the big screen.  Take Baz Luhrmann’s dazzling 1996 film adaptation of  Romeo and Juliet starring a young Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes set amid a futuristic urban backdrop of Venice Beach.  Bringing Shakespeare’s doomed romance and language to a whole new generation the film made more than $140 million at the box office proving Shakespeare’s beating heart travels far and wide.

Also well documented is the fact that Shakespeare’s male and female characters do not necessarily have to stick to gender-stereotypical casting to work.  Take Phyllida Lloyd CBE’s searing all powerful female, ethnically diverse Shakespearean trilogy (Henry IV, The Tempest, and Julius Caesar ) originally staged at The Donmar Warehouse in  2018 with Dame Harriet Walter in lead roles.   Audiences were able to enjoy these productions in both London and New York with critics referring to, Julius Caesar for example, as “liberating” and “inventive” proving Shakespeare’s continual versatility post #MeToo campaign at a time when gender issues are being ever more hotly debated.

Henry IV

From Phyllida Lloyd‘s production of Henry IV starring Dame Harriet Walter

But what do actors think about performing Shakespeare? British actress, Juliet Stevenson CBE, who joined the RSC straight from drama school and has played leading Shakespearean roles including Isabella (Measure For Measure) and Cressida (Troilus and Cressida) likens it to training for a marathon, “Every part of you is stretched – intellectually, imaginatively, emotionally, physically, technically.  The canvas of his imagination is so vast”. Shakespearean stalwart, Sir Simon Russell Beale CBE, who has played Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear and who is considered to be the greatest actor of his generation, says he now thinks he spends most of his time in rehearsal “trying to clarify the sequence of thoughts, trusting that the emotional life of the character will follow”.  He also admits that “It is harder than it sounds. Very often (at least with Shakespeare), it is a question of finding the simplest reading”. Indeed, no matter how exhausting, exhilarating, or challenging, Shakespeare will always be our go-to playwright in man’s search for explanation and meaning in the world; transcending geographical boundaries, race, color, creed, and ideology.

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