A few years ago I presented a BBC Radio programme called ‘Shakespeare is German’ about a season of Shakespeare plays and films performed in German in the UK, organized by The Globe Theatre in London, the Goethe-Institut and several partners. It’s true that no other country in the world outside the UK has embraced the great 16th century playwright more than Germany.
Hamlet in German is beautiful and very different and even more harrowing than in English. I’ve also seen Cymbeline in Juba Arabic, As You Like It in Russian and The Merchant of Venice in Hebrew. Shakespeare belongs to the world. If I ever admit to being proud to be English, it’s also because I was born in Shakespeare’s Own Country. So in this 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, as he’s celebrated all over the world with celebratory fireworks, I’m going to be unusually patriotic and claim that ‘Shakespeare is (also) English’!
My personal love affair with the Bard runs deep. I met him at school with Hamlet; I performed him at University and I sort of married him: my husband Max is a Shakespeare nut, nerd, geek. As members of London’s glorious Globe Theatre for over a decade, we have seen most of the plays several times. They never, ever lose their appeal and the language excites me every time with its wit, wisdom and invention. Our bookshelves at home groan with editions of the plays, books about the Bard and collections of all the programme booklets from all the plays. We are sufferers of that well-known disease ‘Shakespeare Hoarding Syndrome’ (SHS). This week Max saw The Tempest, last week we saw The Winter’s Tale. We need our fix.
The English love affair with the Bard also runs deep. Shakespeare accompanies us from birth to death; his words are with us from when we wake to when we sleep; he is with us at school, college and work; he is in bookshops, theatres, cinemas, concert halls, on TV and the walls of law firms (Measure For Measure of course!); he is towering, magnificent, ubiquitous. Especially this year when, it seems, every single person in the country is involved in celebrating Shakespeare and his legacy in some way. It’s not just the websites, Apps and Hashtags dedicated to the great man http://www.shakespeare400.org/ @S400events #Shakespeare400 (for example) but a constant revolution of new interpretations (The Globe has a new Artistic Director, Emma Rice), new TV adaptations (Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III for the BBC), the Shakespeare ‘Son et Lumiere’ on the walls of the Guildhall, guided walks and tours, Table Top Shakespeare (all 36 plays performed with ‘a cast of everyday objects’); exhibitions of First Folios, modern-day retellings of Shakespeare by other famous writers, such as Margaret Atwood (surely Canada’s very own Bard) who has re-written The Tempest with the delicious title ‘Hag-Seed’; Jeanette Winterson brilliantly tackled The Winter’s Tale (as ‘The Gap of Time’), Howard Jacobson The Merchant of Venice and Edward St Aubyn has reimagined King Lear. And in cinemas, thanks to a marvelous, life-enhancing innovation, we have live relays of theatre productions – Kenneth Branagh’s superb A Winter’s Tale has been, his Romeo And Juliet is still to come. The Royal Shakespeare Company is taking A Midsummer Night’s Dream across the country, calling it A Play for the Nation, by combining professional RSC actors and actors from amateur theatre companies playing Bottom and the Mechanicals. My mother, Jean, has already booked to see ‘The Dream’ in my home county of Cornwall. Yes, Shakespeare is Cornish too!
All year-long, across the UK, there’ll be cartoons, comedies, musicals, cakes, puddings and parties. If you can’t stomach The Complete Works, how about The Complete Deaths? You can see all 75 deaths in the works of Shakespeare in one evening of slaughter and laughter in Northampton, and at the underground Vault festival in London you can experience Banquo’s last hours via headphones and video projections. 400 years on we now have The Digital Bard.
By the time we reach Shakespeare’s actual birthday on 23 April 2016 – the main focus of the year’s festivities – even Max and I may be too exhausted to participate. Shakespeare Day Live, as it’s officially known, marks a whole day of events across the whole country, accessible digitally across the whole world, involving the whole of BBC radio, TV and Online in collaboration with all the nation’s greatest performing arts institutions. Shakespeare Day Live will inaugurate Shakespeare Lives, a six-month online festival, for audiences in the UK and around the whole world to experience in one digital space.
After that, the world can have him back. Shakespeare can go back to being German or Hindi or Russian. Back here in Blighty we will continue with our national pastime of debating who actually wrote his plays. Because not only may Shakespeare not be English but he may not be Shakespeare either.
By Rosie Goldsmith