Happy birthday, Shakespeare!
What needs my Shakespeare for his honoured bones,
The labour of an age in piled stones?
Or that his hallowed relics should be hid
Under a star-ypointing pyramid?
Dear son of Memory, great heir of Fame,
What needs't thou such weak witness of thy name?
Thou, in our wonder and astonishment
Hast built thyself a livelong monument.
Thus Milton eulogized the Prince of Poets, William Shakespeare, born April 23, 1564. (That was yesterday, and I apologize for being a day late.) Tradition has it that he died on his birthday in 1616, still young at only 52 years of age. I'm always struck by how young he was when he died (according to this article, from a rare cancer of the tear duct)-- still he wrote 37 plays, plays that will live as long as English is spoken. I think we can say of Shakespeare, as he said of Cleopatra:
Age cannot wither him, nor custom stale
His infinite variety.
The Modern Elizabethan - New York Times
The Modern Elizabethan
By LORRIE MOORE
AN academic colleague of mine once asked me who had made me into a writer. "And I don't mean one of those creative writing professors," he said to me, a creative writing professor.
"Well, who do you mean?" I asked, probably ungrammatically, a thing creative writing professors get to do.
"I mean, who was your Shakespeare professor?" he asked; he was of course a Shakespeare professor himself.
I understood what he meant: Shakespeare was elemental, formative, fateful. Unlike the work of any writer before or since, Shakespeare's plays and poetry, while taking advantage of an audience's church-acquired tolerance for long speeches, celebrated the relatively new language of English and explored the strangeness within the ordinary and the familiar within the strange — the task of every artist. He returned again and again to the pathologies of love, marriage and family — interest in which is a prerequisite for embarkation on an American literary life. [....]
The limberness of Shakespeare's gift is arguably best demonstrated not by the greatest plays — "Hamlet," "King Lear," "Macbeth" — but by two that are considered more minor, one a tragedy, one a comedy, and both written the same year, more likely the tragedy first, as the comedy is something of a satire on the tragedy. These are "Romeo and Juliet" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream." (That they might have been accruing simultaneously on his writing table is one of those events writers and critics alike are fond of imagining.)
Though they each have their various textual sources — Shakespeare, like Puccini, was a notorious artistic poacher, so much so that tales of Shakespeare's actual poaching of game have attached themselves to his legend — they are distinctly Shakespearean in their look at love. [....]
Shakespeare's London was one of the great cities of Europe, though smaller than Madison, Wis., is today. It was also rife with the religious bloodshed of modern Belfast or Baghdad. When Shakespeare arrived in London as a young man he would have passed, impaled on the famous bridge into town, the skull of a distant cousin, killed for being a Catholic. How could this fail to leave an impression?
He filled his early plays, written in his new home, with violent young men and angry mobs. When he left, rich and successful, it was to die (at 52) of what doctors today have speculated was a rare cancer of the tear duct — an illness as cruelly ironic as that of Puccini's cancer of the throat. His beloved Globe Theater had burned down. He could not have been happy.
But he did not know that his work would survive forever not just on stage but in book, screen and musical form — no one at that time could have. Or that his words would inspire their own honoring thefts: Joni Mitchell took a glittering simile of his for "That Song About the Midway"; "West Side Story" and "She's the Man" borrowed his plots.