Readers: Please consider participating in the birthday celebrations happening all over the world by reading, commenting, and wishing the Bard your own personalized birthday wish…
Today is the 448th birthday of not only the greatest playwright who ever lived, but also the greatest poet. He is the most accomplished English writer of all time, by far the world’s most produced dramatist, and the finest wordsmith to ever pen a word in the English language.
Given such incomparable accomplishments, is it possible we still underestimate the power of the Bard? Could it be that his astonishing breadth of work has become so commonplace in our lives that we take it for granted?
It usually begins like this. We are force-fed the chestnuts in high school – first Romeo & Juliet when we’re 13 or 14, Hamlet in our senior year of high school, and if we’re lucky, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Julius Caesar, or Othello – all behind desks in English class. We write papers – we watch and listen and daydream as our teacher tells us the salient points. We discuss what we thought from the night before, silently and dutifully skimming the plays at home. Maybe we see a production before we turn 20 and maybe (a big maybe), it’s good enough to make the language come alive. But after that, for most of us, “Shakespeare” is the stuff of libraries, of academia, and occasionally of a well intentioned Hollywood film.
But what most of us don’t know is that Shakespeare has managed to get inside of us without our really knowing it. Common words and phrases we use every day that seem to come from our own heads came from His first. Undone. Assassination. Elbow room. Sea change. Foregone conclusions. And thousands – thousands…more.
Even more consequential than our language, Jung might say that the very fabric of many of our social experiences are psychological echoes of relationships Shakespeare first set in compelling motion. Young love. Mischief. Jealousy. Senility. Tyranny. Sacrifice. Of course he didn’t invent these. But in the loudest poetic big bang in all of history he forged the elements that became western culture’s touchstones and archetypes for all of these experiences and more. Through nearly 400 years of sheer ubiquity he infiltrated our very understanding of what it means to be alive – so that we, currently alive, celebrate Shakespeare every day merely by experiencing life itself in the social, political, and psychological ways that we choose.
It is not so surprising then that we do not stop to consider each and every day the Bard’s imprint on our lives. It is exhausting to constantly celebrate influence and genius. But everyone has birthdays and we know the drill. So in light of the breathtaking degree to which this one man has infiltrated so many strata of our existence, I ask my readers, how do we adequately go about wishing him a happy birthday? It’s a tough one. To me it is as if we should develop some ceremony to honor the inventor of Compassion. Thank you? My compassion is mine, just as my language is mine. I can thank the Dalai Lama for updating his facebook status to remind me of forgiveness, but to honor the creation of forgiveness itself? When I forgive someone, that act is mine. When I say, “Well I’m sorry I said that, I know it can’t be undone,” that language is also mine. When I fall in love, and debate the existence of love at first sight, that experience is certainly mine. So how in the world can I appropriately “thank” or “honor” Shakespeare for what he has given me, when in fact he has contributed more to my day to day life than any other person except my parents?
Or to say it another way, what am I going to write on his birthday card?
What would he appreciate most?
Dear Mr. Shakespeare,
Happy Birthday. Thank you for helping me understand who I am. Thank you for helping me understand who my friends are. And while I’m at it, thank you for helping me understand who my enemies are. Thank you for allowing me to see that people of different opinions aren’t right or wrong, but rather, that all honest opinions have integrity. Most of all, thank you for reminding me that one person can have an immeasurable impact on the world. Thank you for reminding me to follow my bliss, to do what I love to do, and to create things that I love, trusting that the world may love them for the same, or entirely different, reasons. Thank you for leaving it all on the field, so that when your days ended, your riches remained there for me and my friends to play with anytime we want. You’re incredibly special to me, and I don’t know what I would have done with my life had you not come first. I’d say I will always love you, but you’re really really really dead, and that creeps me out a bit. But I will always love what you’ve given me, because it’s inseparable from who I am. And I have a hunch that the degree to which I really like me is somewhat attributable to you.
N.B.: This post was requested and is being shared by The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon, whose site Blogging For Shakespeare is throwing a weeklong blog-fest of Shakespeare birthday wishes. Please find the other entries here: www.