Happy Birthday Shakespeare


Happy Birthday William Shakespeare!

Instead of trying to review one, or discuss all his works and poems and influence I am instead going to do some mini reviews/discussing of some favourites, my association with Shakespeare, and talk about where Shakespeare keeps popping up.

The actual birthday of Shakespeare is not actually known, but many scholars believe it is on or around the 23rd April. He was baptised on the 26th so it is definitely in the right area. I know in high school when I first started learning about Shakespeare I found is rather spooky that he died on the day he was born. Like some strange circle that he was in and out on the same day. So we shall go with the scholars on this and say today is his birthday for all intents and purposes. Option B is of course to just say we are here celebrating his death? But that sounds a tad sombre and crass so perhaps not.

In his life he wrote numerous plays and sonnets, and has sparked quite a large conspiracy theory about whether he actual wrote the things he wrote. This is not the time to get into this but it is interesting what people find to claim his fraudulence. I think I only know his 18th Sonnet which is the infamous ‘Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day?’ and being not all that keen on poetry that may have to do me. But I am not adverse to a play. Of course like most things if you research you might find you actually know a lot more but never realised they came from Shakespeare.

A lot of people tend to quote Shakespeare in everyday life and certainly in popular culture which is interesting, considering how many people seem to dislike him and find his works hard and annoying to read. There are certainly the main handfuls that get referenced and adapted over and over, while others are rarely seen outside the theatre. Luckily, and thankfully really, movies can help bring the interest back around. Films like Romeo + Juliet certainly, but also She’s the Man and 10 Things I Hate About You are sneaky retellings of Shakespeare plays, Twelfth Night and Taming of the Shrew respectively. If you peak an interest in the story by a film, then you can bring people back to the play.

Romeo and Juliet ★   ★   ★   ★  – 4 Stars

Probably the most idealised relationship that from memory lasted for three days between a 13 year and a possibly a 17 year old (no one really knows) and resulted in 6 deaths. How sweet. But what Shakespeare manages to do is show the consequences of how feuds and hatred can impact on people in ways you never thought possible. What Romeo and Juliet did just because of their family feud is extreme. The mere mention of the opposite family is enough to spark anger, and hatred for generations simply because it is instilled from an early age. ‘My only love sprung from my only hate’, as it goes.

I remember my first introduction to this was through the Brady Bunch and Marsha was Juliet and she let it go to her head. It certainly imprinted ‘Deny thy father and refuse thy name; Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love and I’ll no longer be a Capulet’  in my brain as she announced it from atop the stairs over and over.

The second was in the film Romeo + Juliet where it made it cool and exciting, while still keeping Shakespeare’s words true. I adored this film. I remember watching the 1968 version a few years ago and it is still Shakespeare, but it is also a lot stranger, though they do use the right ages for their actors. Perhaps that is part of the unsettling nature. Moving on from modern views on historic works!

Macbeth ★   ★   ★   ★  – 4 Stars

I wrote a review for Macbeth on Goodreads late last year, what is interesting when I revisited it I was surprised to see I had said I wouldn’t read Shakespeare on my own accord, it has always been for school or uni that I read them. Considering I gave Macbeth four stars didn’t seem to change this opinion, I have also given Shakespeare works two stars. But that isn’t what was interesting; what is was is that now, only a few months later, I find myself actually wanting to read his plays. Those I have read I have both loved and hated, but I feel like I need to read them, almost like the feeling of you should read the classics, but it is also in part an individual want to read them, not just the entertaining popular ones. And anything can be entertaining if you adapt it the right way of course, but in the play format you have to be determined. And I think if you choose to read them by your own will, then you probably will enjoy them more. But as I say, I liked many I had to read, it does depend on the story too. I don’t know, perhaps I am just getting older and this is what people do when they are six months older.

The thing about doing a Shakespeare course at uni meant I also watched a few film adaptations. There were the traditional ones where we stayed in era and costume and language, but there was one that I loved was a television show that retold Macbeth using a restaurant with the Chef being Joe Macbeth and Lady Macbeth was Ella, his wife and the hostess. It was part of a series called ShakespeaRe-Told by Peter Moffet. It was really great, there were a lot of very clever references that were woven into the story that made sense in the new modern context, but also tied in to the play and theatre origins.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream ★   ★   ★   ★   ★ – 5 Stars

This is one of my favourite plays; it was also one of the few I remember understanding pretty much straight away. There was nothing in there that confused me, and the jovial nature of it was rather amusing. It also wasn’t that familiar to me and I didn’t have any existing knowledge of the story like Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, or Hamlet.

What I enjoyed about A Midsummer Night’s Dream was the magical element of it. It wasn’t set in some cold castle, and wasn’t about killing and revenge, it was about mystical and magical fairies who controlled the love and lives of people who entered their forest.

The story tells of the marriage of the Duke of Athens, Theseus and Hippolyta, and the events that surround it. These include the adventures of four Athenian loves and six amateur actors, all interwoven and running about in this forest, unaware of the fairies who influence their night. There are three interlocking plots all up within this play, connected by the marriage. I do remember learning that this was the origin of the famous Wedding March. Composed by Felix Mendelssohn for the play it has been used to introduce the bride pretty much ever since. The other is the Bridal March composed by Wagner. Both are used nowadays hence the confusion between them, but it was Mendelssohn’s that came out of Shakespeare. So that’s rather cool.

The greatest film adaptation, and by far favourite, was the 1935 version with a very young Mickey Rooney playing Puck. What also came from this play are more wonderful quotes: Lord, what fools these mortals be!;  Cupid is a knavish lad, Thus to make poor females mad;  and the always wonderful,  ‘If we shadows have offended, Think but this, and all is mended, That you have but slumbered here, While these visions did appear’.

Puck was always a favourite, though the antics of Bottom and the interaction between the characters are wonderful as well. I think this story works well as a film adaptation because so much of the magic can be shown on the screen, and because it is so magical it is beautiful as well. While Macbeth or Othello have a strong story presence and a foreboding and darker scene to portray, A Midsummer Night’s Dream can have a jovial story with an elegant setting.

I realise a lot of talk of these plays is through films, but I think once you have read the play, seeing it in film, or as a play live, can help you appreciate the story better, especially when it comes to the language of Shakespeare. As I mentioned, there is Shakespeare in popular culture whether we notice it or not. Tim Minchin uses Shakespeare in his song Storm, Horrible Histories did an excellent song about the words and phrases we get from Shakespeare, He gave us a myriad of words and phrases and this song is a prime example and it is brilliant. They also do a lot on Shakespeare in generally about his exsquisit insults, trying to debunk myths about Richard lll told in song and funny skits. They are a lot better than reading that play, was not a favourite that is for sure.

Even words you never knew all seem to come back to Shakespeare, and of course a lot never caught on, like this QI clip shows. The full Shakespeare dedicated episode can be watched here, always a laugh and with costumes!

In terms of the Shakespeare doubt, Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series (yes that again), has a wonderfully reoccurrence of Shakespeare and this idea of his authenticity. If you don’t read it for the obvious reasons to start this series, it may be for the Shakespeare angle. There is even a Doctor Who episode about him and he pops up elsewhere with the Doctor as well. There is no escaping him really.

No matter what you believe in terms of his authenticity or whether you loathe him because you had to study him, you do not like the language, or you are simply not a play and sonnet type of person, you still have to acknowledge and admit that the Bard has done a lot for language and society in terms of the influence he has had over so much of what do and say and how we interact with the world. So with that substantial affect and power he has had on the world, I wish him a happy birthday, marvel at his works no matter what I think of them, and rather wish we had more concrete answers so we could spend less time debating and know all the facts to offer the best appreciation.

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