Shakespeare’s 400th Anniversary

Shakespeare’s 400th Anniversary

Celebrating the life and works of William Shakespeare 400 years after his death.

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The 23rd April 2016 marked the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. Widely accepted as the greatest playwright of all time, Shakespeare’s life is one to be celebrated. His works are still studied and enjoyed worldwide; his plays re-enacted and interpreted according to changing times. The enduring popularity of his works is testament to his greatness. Shakespeare was a pioneer of literature as we know it and the transcending themes that run through his plays are as relevant today as they were hundreds of years ago.

Born in Stratford-upon-Avon in April 1564, William Shakespeare was the son of a glove-maker and the third of eight children. His early life was typical for a boy of that era; he is believed to have attended a local grammar school before marrying Anne Hathaway at the age of 18. Not much is historically documented about Shakepeare’s next ten years, other than the births of his three children Susanna, Hamnet and Judith. There is speculation that he was a school teacher for a time until being mentioned on London’s theatre scene in 1592.

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The Comedy of Errors is one of Shakespeare’s earliest works and may have been his very first play. Relying more on slapstick humour than verbal nuance, critics see it as a less refined example of his work, probably written while still honing his craft. Along with The Tempest, The Comedy of Errors is one of just two of Shakespeare’s plays to observe Aristotle’s law of classical unities. Drama in the sixteenth century was predominantly still seen as low-brow entertainment. As playwrights endeavoured to appeal to a more influential audience, remaining true to classical unities was a way of elevating a play’s status. However, Shakespeare soon recognised the restrictive nature of Aristotelian rules and as he gained in confidence and stature, moved towards more creative structural devices.

The Renaissance period was a time of huge change for entertainment and leisure pursuits. With theatre increasingly attracting the upper classes, writing and acting began to be appreciated on a higher level; classical prejudices against representation were dispersing in all but the most puritanical quarters. Indeed, Elizabeth I regularly attended Shakepeare’s plays, as did James after his ascension to the throne. Changing attitudes towards representation and issues of identity can be seen in The Comedy of Errors where two sets of twins are separated in infancy. The ambiguity and confusion which ensues when the twins are repeatedly subject to mistaken identity are farcically depicted. The development of identity is further developed in Shakespeare’s later plays, where self analysis and the exploration of the wider human condition provide vast scope for continued reinterpretation.

Many Shakespearean protagonists demonstrate traits that people still display today; fatal flaws and internal struggles as they wrestle with greed, guilt or unrequited love. Shakespeare’s power of characterisation is certainly amongst his many strengths. In his annotated edition of Shakespeare’s plays, Dr. Samuel Johnson says in the preface that Shakespeare’s characters are the ‘progeny of common humanity such as will always remain I this world and whom our eyes will continue to meet’¹. His characters are very much universal, belonging to humanity in general rather than any particular period of time.

Also noteworthy, especially for the time, was Shakespeare’s realistic drawing of characters; as in real life, nobody is portrayed as definitively good or evil. Macbeth presents an interesting example, as the title character is introduced to us as a good, noble soldier who has fought hard for his King and country. His downward spiral is progressive; no sooner has he been made Thane of Cawdor than he meets the three witches whose proclamations compound his hunger for power. Circumstances feed into his ambition, and bravery becomes impulse, leading him to murder and treachery.

High School Essay Scholarships The supernatural is a repeated theme in Shakespeare’s work and this, too, is important historically. In an age where the church was still seen as overseer of virtue, the supernatural was synonymous with evil; powerful and corrupting. Macbeth’s meeting with the witches and his belief in their words at once mark him as damned. This meeting also presents us with an example of how Shakespeare’s plays have influenced not only literature but language itself. There are many Shakespearean quotations which have transcended into well-used sayings or phrases, including ‘“Double, double, toil and trouble;/ Fire burn, and cauldron bubble!”’ which is now accepted as a generic witches’ spell. Even ‘Knock, knock! Who’s there?’ began as a line in Macbeth. 

400 years after his death, it is both remarkable and deserving that William Shakespeare continues to be celebrated. His comedies, tragedies and histories alternatively offer dramatisation of people and politics, explore life cycles and rituals and comment on love, revenge, good and evil. The Bard of Stratford has achieved more than any other playwright and his far-reaching influence will undoubtedly be felt for many more years.

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Keri Wilson
Keri graduated in English Literary Studies back in the year 2000. She worked in various Sales, Communications and Production roles before taking leave of her senses and qualifying as a secondary English teacher. Since having her two children, she has focused on raising them and trying not to screw them up too badly. She thinks she’s doing a good job, although it is a work in progress. For the past few years, Keri has also been providing private English tuition as well as beginning work on her first novel. It is currently hovering around the 40,000 words mark although it does need editing or maybe just ripping up. Keri has recently branched out into freelance writing and is enjoying the variety, writing for both an SEO company and a literary magazine. She loves reading an eclectic mix of literature and is a member of a local book club. A life-long animal lover, Keri also shares her home with a neurotic poodle, a corn snake and a giant African land snail.