Thursday, 7 April 2016

Shakespeare 400

As a card-carrying literature enthusiast, I cannot let the month of April pass without writing a post about William Shakespeare.

2014 celebrated the 450th anniversary of William Shakespeare's birth, April 1564. Now we approach the 400th anniversary of his death,  April 1616.

Already I have binged on Shakespeare, having been privileged to watch the Cycle of Kings presented at the Barbican before it left for a world-wide tour.  I've seen Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale at the indoor Globe, otherwise known as the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.  I've attended a Shakespeare exhibition at Somerset House.  This presents an opportunity to see Shakespeare's own signature as it appears in his actual will, deposited in the National Archives. This is not a facsimile, but the original, albeit under a glass case,  the real thing. 

The British Library has an exhibition opening soon, which I hope to visit, but even if I can't, the online site is so very informative and fascinating, so generous in its sharing of digital texts, that it alone is worth spending much time on, and it is all free.

Other online portals abound.  The Royal Society of Literature has an audio recording of ten modern poets, who each choose one of Shakespeare's sonnets, and then read one of their own poems, inspired by the sonnet.

Here is a very special corner of the internet.  A manuscript copy of a play called "Sir Thomas More".  It's special because, it is claimed,  this is the only surviving example of a script of any play in Shakespeare's handwriting.  That alone is worthy of attention, but other things call out across the centuries.  The play was censured, because it contains a scene of rioting.  Any challenge to authority was seen as treason in late Elizabethan England.  It was a group effort, various playwrights being credited, and it is thought that Shakespeare was brought in to write scenes that would make it more acceptable to the censor.   

The scene highlighted is about the plight of refugees - the citizens of London are angry and rioting because they think that the incoming migrants are taking their jobs and their homes. The Londoners want them to be sent back home.  The character of Thomas More, as depicted here, tells these hard-hearted citizens to imagine how they would feel, if they were exiled to a foreign land, and treated in like manner by the inhabitants. It's strong, stirring stuff.

I found it difficult to understand the printed extract, the language and sentence construction are archaic.  However, help is at hand.

Sir Ian McKellen reads the whole speech here.  Awesome, majestic, wonderful. I listened to it twice.  It's so clear, so emotional.  How wonderful is the internet!


  1. The Shakespeare event on Saturday, shown live on BBC2 also includes the same speech delivered by Sir Ian McKellan, from the play Sir Thomas More.

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