Soul of the age

Chandos portrait
Chandos portrait

… Soul of the age!
The applause, delight, the wonder of our stage!
My Shakespeare, rise! …
Thou art a monument without a tomb,
And art alive still while thy book doth live
And we have wits to read and praise to give.
— Ben Jonson To the Memory of My Beloved
the Author, Mr. William Shakespeare

This valedictory poem by fellow playwright Ben Jonson summons up a contemporary estimation of the worth of William Shakespeare, whose death-day (and possibly birthday too) is annually celebrated — if that’s the right word — on April 23rd, St George’s Day. There can’t be many lovers of literature who aren’t aware that 2016 marks the 400th anniversary of his departure from this world, leaving it a richer place for what he left to us.

I’ve discussed the man and works a few times in these pages, and now may be a fitting time to draw your attention to the occasionally dark but sometimes floodlit corners that I’ve explored over the years, with links to the posts that deal with these matters.

First it’s not surprising that there are still a lot of Shakespeare-deniers around, as there have now been nearly two centuries of doubt that an ex- provincial grammar school pupil could have written Shakespeare’s plays — to paraphrase Oliver Goldsmith, “still the wonder grew / That one hick’s head could carry all he knew”. James Shapiro successfully demolished, I suggested, the case against the Stratford lad in Contested Will. In a two-part review I also looked at a study entitled The True Face of William Shakespeare (by the wonderfully named Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel) and the curious histories of some of the supposed true likenesses of the Bard.

What about his plays, upon which his reputation mostly rests? In 2014, again around Shakespeare’s birthday, fellow blogger Lizzie Ross and I had a closer look at a lesser-known and infrequently performed play Cymbeline, examining it in stages  (Act I  Act II  Act III  Act IV and Act V); at the same time I also discussed the play’s eccentric geography. In addition I reviewed a detailed study entitled The Dream of Prospero focusing on The Tempest, which I oddly enough attracted the most number of ‘likes’ I’ve ever had (possibly because of its mention of magic).

So much for non-fiction, but Shakespeare has also inspired fiction writers, sometimes directly, at other times in an oblique fashion. Charlie Lovett’s The Bookman’s Tale, for example, envisaged a copy of Pandosto, the inspiration for Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, turning up in modern times apparently annotated by Will himself. Historian Paul Doherty, writing as Michael Clynes, liberally pinches many of Shakespeare’s best lines for his leading man in The Grail Murders. Many key Shakespearean phrases supply the titles and epigraphs for John Wyndham’s posthumous novel Plan for Chaos while Garth Nix’s Abhorsen borrows an obscure Shakespearean character, an executioner in fact, for its title and inspiration.

Novelists who write for younger readers also explicitly or implicitly reference the playwright’s works. Diana Wynne Jones Enchanted Glass draws on A Midsummer Night’s Dream for a portion of its plot, doing the same for Romeo and Juliet in her The Magicians of Caprona. And, most recently, I’ve drawn attention to Joan Aiken’s Black Hearts in Battersea for its probable indebtedness to Shakespeare’s plays in general and to Elizabethan theatres in particular.

All in all, then, Jonson would surely have been delighted that not only are Will’s plays still performed (not merely read in a book) but that he continues to be the Soul of the Age in the 21st century, all over the world as well as in his native country, four hundred years after he might just as easily have been consigned to the dustbin of history (or at least the back of the cupboard). We have much to be grateful for, and especially to his surviving Globe colleagues who saw fit to publish an edited collection of his dramas within a few years of 1616.

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3 thoughts on “Soul of the age

  1. It is reassuring to note that in all probability Bill Waggle-Assegai actually did write the stuff. As for his impact – even I have dragged him into my latest novel, where my protagonists discover that he has been misquoted all these years and ‘The Raging Rocks’ contains an awful warning.

      1. No, these are the ones from Midsummer Night’s Dream:

        The raging rocks.
        And shivering shocks.
        Shall break the locks.
        Of prison gates.
        And Phoebus’ car.
        Shall shine from far.
        And make and mar.
        The foolish Fates.

        It gets around – the front matter has a quote from ee cummings!

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