Happy Birthday, Shakespeare

The last post featured some light-hearted humour; this one is more traditional, though there is still plenty of humour. Yesterday was Shakespeare’s birthday – he’d be 456, which is a lot of candles to fit on a cake. His actual date of birth isn’t known but his birth was registered on 26 April, so 23 April has been taken as his birthday. It was also, as some of you may know, his death day, which is recorded, in 1616.

Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon and went to London sometime in the 1580s, initially working as an actor before he turned to writing plays. By the time he retired and returned to Stratford, he had written 37 plays. He was widely admired and very successful in his own time and he is now probably the most famous playwright in the world. His most productive period was perhaps between 1598 and 1601, when he wrote seven of his plays, including Henry V, culminating the series of history plays about the civil war in England and war with France; the Roman history Julius Caesar; and Hamlet, perhaps his most famous play. It was also when he wrote his three great mature comedies, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night.

The theatre world of Elizabethan England was a vibrant one. William Shakespeare himself was rooted in theatre. As he began his career as an actor, he had an actor’s sense of which speeches would be effective on stage and how plays could be delivered with maximum impact for an audience. When writing his plays, he worked directly with his company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later the King’s Men), so it is likely that he valued the feedback which the other actors could give him as rehearsals progressed. However, a permanent theatre building was still a novel idea, as the first one was only built in London in 1576. The Globe, where most of Shakespeare’s plays were first performed, was built in 1599, and you have probably all visited its reconstruction on the South Bank, very close to the original site. I have recently finished reading Shakespeare & Co. by Stanley Wells, one of our foremost Shakespearean scholars. The book deals with Shakesepare as a theatre man and puts him within the context of that Elizabethan and Jacobean theatrical world, with chapters on playwrights Marlowe, Dekker, Jonson, Middleton and Fletcher as well as actors of the period. I warmly recommend it, and Simon Callow, great actor himself, reviews it here.

All A Level students will be studying Shakespeare and happily there is plenty available to you in lockdown. Starting yesterday evening and available for a week is the National Theatre’s production of Twelfth Night directed by Simon Godwin. It is a fantastically clever play, a comedy hinging on twins and mistaken identity. Godwin’s version of Twelfth Night is great fun and does a bit of crucial gender-swapping: the role of Malvolio becomes Malvolia, played by Tamsin Greig. You might think about how that affects the play when you watch it. Here’s the link. A cheap, accessible version of the play is the Collins Classroom Classics edition. For more serious study, you might want the scholarly Arden edition.

Twelfth Night will be followed from 30 April by the acclaimed version of Frankenstein with Benedict Cumberbatch, another set text, which in turn will be followed by Simon Godwin again, this time his production of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, yet another set text. That will be from 7 May.

The Royal Shakespeare Company will also be providing a number of its productions to watch at home. By curious coincidence, the list includes Hamlet, which features on some A Level specifications, directed again by Simon Godwin. Full details have not yet been announced, but the information page is here.

There is also lots of other great Shakespeare material on the site for you to explore.