400 Years of Shakespeare

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Today marks the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. This event has been marked by year-long celebrations in the appropriate places. We’re not sure of his birthday because four hundred years ago that wasn’t necessarily written down. Instead what we know is the date of his baptism, which happens to be April 26, 1564. Before the days of issuing birth certificates and Social Security Numbers before an infant left the hospital, a baptism was a much more significant life event than the birth. While we don’t know the exact date he was born, traditionally his birthday has been celebrated on April 23rd, the same as his death.

I first encountered Shakespeare when I was in what was then called junior high. This was roughly equivalent to middle school, for those of you too young to remember the term. I had an absolutely fabulous English teacher, Frank Aversano, who loved Shakespeare. I think we read five or six plays over the course of that year. Mr. Aversano was an excellent teacher, full of knowledge about Elizabethan times, and willing to explain all the obscure references so that we got the jokes. So many people think of Shakespeare as dry and boring, but he was actually quite funny—and bawdy.

Not too long after, I got to attend a performance of Julius Caesar at the theater in Stratford, Connecticut. Having read the play with Mr. Aversano, I found seeing it an enlightening experience. I’m fairly certain it was my first live play, but I also saw a few plays in Manhattan with my friends in that timeframe.

One of the places marking this quadricentennial anniversary is the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust , which of course, is located in Stratford on Avon in the United Kingdom. This organization maintains five historical sites, homes related to Shakespeare and his family, along with artifacts and manuscripts from the time period. Late last year, along with the University of Warwick, they offered a free course at FutureLearn titled Shakespeare and His World.

This class included videos which again put the plays in historical context and illustrated references with some of the artifacts from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust collection. Each week also included a “focus play,” which allowed me to revisit old friends and meet new ones, other plays I hadn’t read before.

Again, the stars aligned to allow me to see the performance of another play during this time, this time Hamlet with Benedict Cumberbatch. Now, I’m a huge Benedict Cumberbatch fan thanks to Sherlock on PBS, so that certainly was a primary draw for me. But I also would have wanted to see the play, even without one of my favorite actors as the star.

The primary takeaway from this for me was a reminder that the plays are meant to be seen, not read. While Shakespeare’s words are poetic and often memorable (you’d be surprised how many common sayings come from his plays), the stories take on a whole other level of enjoyment when you experience them the way they were meant to be seen.

While there were many years between my Shakespeare classes in junior high and watching Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet in a movie theater in Tucson, my experiences with Shakespeare have stayed with me all that time. When I was developing my new senior sleuth, Lilliana Wentworth, I decided she would be a Shakespeare fan and think of brief quotes at opportune moments. Originally she was a retired English teacher instead of a librarian, a kind of female Mr. Aversano, and I’ve used some of my memories of what he told us so many years ago as things Lilliana thinks or says.

It’s interesting, the way certain things, certain themes, weave themselves through a lifetime. There are lots of things from my childhood, things I think I’ve forgotten about, which became a whole lot less important during the middle years of my life, that are finding their way back into it now. And into my stories. Because writing fiction is just taking bits of who you are and rearranging them so they entertain someone else.
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