Happy 445th Birthday Will!
Happy 445th Birthday Will!
Today, April 23rd, is both the anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth in 1564 and his death in 1616. In his 52 years of life ( a ripe age then, but not by today’s standards), he wrote more than 37 plays (38, if you count Henry VIII) and 154 sonnets. Some scholars contend that he co-authored as many as four more plays, which would put the total count as high as 42.
Some people worship at the Bard’s shrine; others admit his brilliance, but find him overrated. A google search of his name yields over 40 million results, so whatever your position, Will is still very much a part of our lives.
Like many, I first read Shakespeare in high school English and, sadly, I must admit that reading Romeo and Juliet then, accompanied by a viewing of Zeffirelli’s 1968 film adaptation, had little impact on me. It was not until college that I grew to appreciate his work, studying plays such as Othello and Merchant of Venice and Midsummer Night’s Dream and (rereading) Rome and Juliet under the tutelage of two dear professors at Lafayette College, Ian Smith and Suzanne Westfall.
My most fulfilling encounters with Shakespeare, however, have occurred in just the past few months while rereading his tragedies. A number of recent life experiences, particularly the death of my sister from cancer, have affected me so deeply and irrevocably that I feel like a different version of myself. Subsequently, I have read Will’s works through, what has felt like, a new set of lenses. Not those of a teenager or a college student or even a PhD student, but through those all at once of simply a sentient being and a grown woman, mother, and sister in mourning. This time when I read Gertrude’s urging Hamlet to “cast thy nighted color off…Thou knows’t ’tis common, all that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity,” I read with a heightened empathy I had never before experienced. I also have found that in the throws of grief putting on an “antic disposition” is sometimes the only way to get through the day. In King Lear, the abdicated king of the title gains an education through suffering. While cast out into a storm by two of his daughters, Regan and Goneril, he observes firsthand the hardships that have plagued his subjects, causing him to see the error of his ways as a ruler and finally to experience empathy for others. He laments: “I have ta’en too little care of this! Take physic, pomp; expose thyself to feel what wretches feel, that thou mayst shake the superlux to them and show the heavens more just.” In spite of the fact that 11 characters die in Lear, reading the play this time around made me want to focus more on living life than wallowing in the pain of my sister’s death. It has contributed to my attempt to be more grateful for the insights I have gained from the loss of her. It has also reminded me that I am not alone; every day other people in the world are reflecting on their lives, decisions they have made; grieving lost loved ones; enduring illness, poverty, discrimination, and much more. It has made me want to look outward, instead of inward, to communicate, to commiserate, to listen, to speak out, and to act.