Four hundred years ago today, William Shakespeare died three days shy of his 52nd birthday.
It is remarkable that four centuries after his passing, his works are being mounted all in theatres all over the world.
Can anyone imagine any contemporary playwright’s work having such an enduring legacy? Will The Vagina Monologues be consigned to the scrap heap of history? While there might be individual plays that will endure for centuries such as Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman or Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, but none of them was as prolific as Shakespeare.
As with a great many people, most of my exposure to Shakespeare came during high school. Our English classes studied Macbeth, Romeo & Juliet, Othello and King Lear (but oddly never Hamlet). Of the four, I would have to say King Lear would be my favorite. Nearly 25 years ago, I auditioned for the drama program at the University of Windsor and was required to dramatize a Shakespearean soliloquoy. I chose the Porter scene in Macbeth. I still remember some of it. Here’s a knockin’ Indeed. If a man were porter of hellgate, he’d have old turnin’ the key. Knock! Knock! Knock! Whose there in the name of beezlebub?
Unfortunately, I made the error of doing the Porter with my Jimmy Stewart impersonation. Needless to say, the auditioning committee was not amused with my interpretation and I did not pass the audition. I would instead take political science at Carleton University in Ottawa. I can only wonder what path my life would have taken had I been accepted into drama school. But I digress.
Perhaps the most underappreciated aspect of Shakespeare’s work is his poetry, specifically his sonnets. His three quatrains and a couplet with a rhyme scheme of abab cdcd efef gg is well suited for a language less conducive to rhyme than the Latin based languages. Here’s Sonnet #2:
When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Thy youth’s proud livery so gazed on now,
Will be a tattered weed of small worth held:
Then being asked, where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days;
To say within thine own deep sunken eyes,
Were an all-eating shame, and thriftless praise.
How much more praise deserved thy beauty’s use,
If thou couldst answer ‘This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count, and make my old excuse’
Proving his beauty by succession thine.
This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.
The themes Shakespeare wrote of more than four centuries ago are still with us today despite all our technological advances. We may live longer and age slower, but time creeps at an uncomfortable pace until it stops. Yet the world moves on. As such, we can fully expect Shakespeare’s works to remain front and center in the year 2416.
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