The Bard still resonates today

William Shakespeare ANL-160505-114546001
William Shakespeare ANL-160505-114546001
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The late Times newspaper columnist Bernard Levin once listed the vast assembly of phrases that originate from the plays of William Shakespeare. If you claim to be more sinned against than sinning, recall your salad days or act more in sorrow than in anger, you are quoting Shakespeare. If you have been tongue-tied, a tower of strength, hoodwinked or in a pickle, then you are quoting Shakespeare. The list goes on and on.

Last week saw the 400th anniversary of the death of a man who was not only the greatest writer in the English language, but perhaps the most insightful chronicler of the human condition that has ever lived. Such is the breadth and historical sweep of Shakespeare’s writing that some doubt that it could really have been the work of just one man. A few have even questioned whether a man of such humble origins – the son of an Alderman, educated at a local school in Stratford-upon-Avon – could have acquired the sophistication to write so knowledgeably about ancient Rome or the character of the Royal Court. A favoured candidate of those who question the authorship of Hamlet, Macbeth et al is Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. Surely, they argue, it is more likely that such a well-travelled aristocrat and courtier is the authentic author of such great works?

The unpalatable truth for those who doubt Shakespeare’s scholarship and cannon is that his 32 plays were not the product of the rarefied atmosphere of the Royal Court, but the hustle and bustle of the working theatre. Shakespeare was both a writer and an actor. He wrote at a time when the fortunes of theatre companies were on the rise; there was plenty of money to be had and he made his fair share. So, Shakespeare was the beneficiary of social mobility in the Elizabethan age. Similarly, many more recent notable writers and performers have also benefited from the chance to succeed irrespective of from where they began – think of Noel Coward, John Braine, and Harold Pinter. Still more recently those like Alan Bennett and the departed, and much lamented, Victoria Wood illustrate the great opportunities afforded to the post-Second World War generation.

‘All the world’s a stage,’ Shakespeare wrote in As You Like It, ‘And one man in his time plays many parts.’ The details of Shakespeare’s life may be sparse, but the scale and sheer variety of his achievement provides an inspiration to us all. As he wrote ‘it is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.’