Happy 450th, Mr Shakespeare

Actually, Shakespeare is well-known because of his philanthropic deeds.
Last Updated 23 April 2014, 09:00 IST

Shakespeare has caused a lot of misery and suffering over the last 400 years. Even today frightened high school children wake up from scary midsummer nights’ dreams about confusing plays and their confused characters.

Cheerful stage actors throw tempest-tantrums after forgetting memorable dialogues and laudable lines.

Depressed English professors wonder why they wrote voluminous papers on Shakespearean tragedies instead of witty Hollywood scripts.

Shakespeare’s 450th birthday is being celebrated throughout April 2014, all over the world.

But, who was this Shakespeare, and why does he deserve such popularity?

Actually, Shakespeare is well-known because of his philanthropic deeds.

For instance, he generously donated more than 1,700 common words to the English language.

He was notorious for changing nouns into verbs, verbs into adjectives, adding prefixes and suffixes to existing words, or just inventing whole new original words.

If you have ever been ‘Accused’ or ‘Aroused’, been influenced by cheap ‘Advertising’ or expensive ‘Addiction’, or at least witnessed an ‘Assassination’, please note that these are just a few of the ‘A’ words coined by Shakespeare.

And imagine what emotions he could stir up with the rest of the alphabets. Bedroom, Blushing, Courtship, Dishearten, Drugged, Excitement, Fashionable, Generous, Gossip, Invulnerable, Laughable, Majestic, Obscene, Premeditated, Rant, Swagger, Torture, Tranquil, Undress... how many times have we gone from Accused to Undress, without a thankful thought thrown in the direction of that thoughtful man, Mr Shakespeare?

And his generosity did not stop with just words. Hundreds of today’s clichés were born in the mind of Shakespeare and came to life on the pages of his plays.

If you do not understand something and vexedly state,

“It’s Greek to me”, you are quoting Shakespeare (Casca to Cassius in Julius Caesar).

Why he came up with this line remains one of several Shakespearean mysteries.

After all, someone who wrote Greek-motifed plays like Timon Of Athens and Troilus And Cressida should have been familiar with the classical languages.

Did he really not know Greek, or was he simply pretending not to know the language in order to annoy the Greeks?

We casually use dozens of expressions today which were gifted by Shakespeare to the English speaking world — vanish into thin air, play fast and loose, tongue-tied, tower of strength, hoodwinked, neither here nor there, fair play, too much of a good thing, seen better days, live in a fool’s paradise.

To be or not to be...

And just so that these witty words and pretty phrases he invented did not go to waste, in his spare time Shakespeare managed to write 38 plays, 154 sonnets and a few other assorted verses.

His plays ranged from light comedies to dark tragedies, and brought out the best and worst of human nature. His characters were so vivid and real that generations of readers and theatre-goers either loved them or loved to hate them.

Could there be talk of Love, without an honourable mention of Romeo and Juliet?

Families that hate each other but their children fall into forbidden, forever love… this is an essential slice of life that happens every day and everywhere.

Or when we hear about violence within families, we could visualise a gentle Hamlet who once quietly walked around with his father’s skull muttering “To be or not to be”, but gradually changed into a revenge-seeking murderer.

From the cynical wisdom of Jacques and the dark villainy of Macbeth to the blind jealousy of Othello, Shakespeare made the strongest human emotions burst out of his characters.

Shakespeare was born, baptised, bar-hopped and later buried in the unimportant town of Stratford-upon-Avon.

He was baptised as Guiliamus filius Johannes Shakspere, a Latin phrase that just means “William son of John Shakspere”.

Between his birth on April 23, 1564 (a guesstimate based on his baptism on April 26th) and his passing away on April 23, 1616, he won the hearts and minds of the theatre-going public and also managed to become The Bard.

Though he spent a considerable amount of time in London, writing, managing and acting in his plays, he still maintained his secret small town identity, returning to his home in Stratford regularly.

It is not known when exactly Shakespeare began writing, but we know that several of his plays were being performed in London by 1592.

And we know this because by 1592 critics were already attacking him in print, especially Robert Greene, a playwright who was contemptuous and probably secretly jealous of Shakespeare “...there is an upstart Crow …supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.”

(Johannes Factotum, meaning Jack-of-all-trades, refers to a mediocre, unoriginal, second-rate writer.)

And Ben Johnson, revered playwright, scholarly author and Shakespeare’s rival, thought that the Bard “wanted art”, meaning he lacked creative skills.

(Ben Johnson should not be confused with Sam Johnson, father of the Dictionary and a huge fan of Shakespeare. For, without Shakespeare’s contributions, this logophile’s lexicon would have been about 2,000 words shorter.)

But despite the criticism of influential intellectuals like Greene and Johnson, Shakespeare’s success as a playwright rose dramatically.

This second-rate writer who lacked creative skills, along with a few fellow actors, started his own theatre company, Lord Chamberlain’s Men.

From 1594, Shakespeare’s plays were performed exclusively by this company and Lord Chamberlain’s Men soon became the talk and toast of London.

In 1603, the new king of England, James I, gave his royal patronage to the company. Quite naturally, Lord Chamberlain’s Men changed its name to the King’s Men.

In addition to being a playwright and poet, an actor and artiste, Shakespeare also proved he had enviableentrepreneurship skills.

In 1599, Shakespeare and some members of the theatre company built their own theatre on the south bank of River Thames, which they named the Globe.

(Quite appropriate, since Globe represents the world, as in “All the world’s a stage”.) Shakespeare continued to invest wisely, purchasing properties around London and in 1597, he bought the second-largest house in Stratford.

So we have established that Shakespeare loved the sleepy, sheepy town of Stratford.

(Stratford was a market town about 100 miles from London, known for slaughtering, selling and distributing sheep.)

But there is a global group of literary scholars and theorists who hate Stratford. These Anti-Stratfordians, in addition to hating Stratford, also think that Shakespeare did not write the plays credited to him.

They argue vehemently that Stratford was an undeveloped, backward town that lacked the educational facilities and cultural environment required to nurture a literary genius.

And there is no evidence of Shakespeare’s education, no surviving school or college roster records, no records of his teachers or classmates.

Doesn’t this prove that Shakespeare had been almost illiterate?

And how could Shakespeare, from a working class Stratford family, know so much about aristocratic lifestyles and royal protocols that he could write convincingly about court politics, kingly pastimes and foreign cultures?

So, these plays were actually written by a properly educated upper-class gentleman who, for unexplained reasons, decided to keep his name anonymous and gift his fame to an underprivileged actor named Shakespeare.

The Anti-Stratfordians have come up with about 80 candidates who might have been the right writer of these plays, including Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe and the 17th Earl of Oxford.

But if this theory is true and Shakespeare had not been an author, then surely he must have been the world’s greatest actor.

For, he managed to convincingly fool several jealous playwrights, caustic critics, demanding theatre audiences, literary scholars, King James I and his courtiers, and the entire literate population of London.

So, were these plays really authored by someone else, or is the Anti-Stratfordian theory just much ado about nothing?

Shakespeare’s 450th birthday festivities this month are expected to be full of flair and fanfare, and will be celebrated in all corners of the globe, especially in major European cities like Paris and London.

And the special events planned at Stratford-upon-Avon promise “plenty of pageantry, pomp and performance”.

Not to be left out from these glorious, glamorous goings-on and grand gala gaieties, I too would like to add my little birthday greeting, and wish that The Bard continues to be required reading in classrooms for many more generations to come.

Happy 450th, Mr Shakespeare!

(Published 19 April 2014, 17:35 IST)

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