451 years ago, in the sleepy English town of Stratford-upon-Avon, one William Shakespeare was born…supposedly. Although no one actually knows his date of birth, records indicate he was baptised on 26 April, and there is general consensus that one was baptised back then three days after birth. So, although today is not officially Shakespeare’s birthday, it’s certainly the most widely accepted account—which, by the way, is just one of the many common myths and beliefs attached to Shakespeare.
On this (unofficially) auspicious day, I’m pleased to announce my new series of blog posts, entitled A Spot of Shakespeare. Every week, I’ll be making at least one post about an aspect of Shakespeare or Shakespeare-ness, such as his England, his language, his works, his contemporaries, and any recent productions I might have attended. Some of these will be brief overviews, while others will contain a detailed explanation of a Shakespearean snippet, but all in all, I’ll be keeping the posts relatively short so you can nibble on them along with tea and biscuits during an afternoon break.
Today, I want to introduce Shakespeare’s cultural presence, and talk a little about how (and when) I was introduced to his works. As most of you are probably already aware, Shakespeare has had a massive role in influencing and shaping literature in the English language and beyond. Many scholars and literary enthusiasts have some sense of a “Western literary canon”, which is essentially a cluster of written works that are considered “important” and/or “influential”. A lot of what “belongs” in the canon is very much contested, with the exception of Shakespeare: most folks have agreed that he’s pretty much at the centre of this canon. Just the mere fact that his name is recognised in many English-speaking countries and circles affirms his prevalence—even if you’ve not read or seen many of his plays, chances are, you’d vaguely know who he is.
For many people, Shakespeare is thought of as old-fashioned and difficult. Most of my friends outside work have tended to stay away from Shakespeare because, well, his stuff is just way too hard to understand! All these weird character names and complicated bits of English! All these complicated plots and events and the occasional bit of political intricacy! Ugh, it’ll be much easier to watch Game of Thrones instead!
When I first encountered Shakespeare as a child, I was similarly intimidated—add to it that English was my second language and my parents didn’t speak it, and you got a clueless kiddo who thought Shakespeare was some kind of literary god untouchable by mere mortals. But after a while, when I slowly became introduced to Shakespeare’s plays at my Australian high school, I started to become interested in his stories. From Year 8 onwards (when I was 13), we did one Shakespeare play a year, and I can still remember what they were: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Year 8), Romeo and Juliet (Year 9), Macbeth (Year 10), Othello (Year 11), and King Lear (12). Dream didn’t do much for me, but I thought Romeo and Juliet was pretty swell (mind you, I was also going through my bad teenage poetry years then). But it was Macbeth that did it for me: what an awesome story with witches and prophecies and all that jazz! And then Othello became a favourite, because it was basically a super melodramatic soap opera in old-style English. As the years passed, I realised this dude wasn’t so bad after all, and with a bit of help, I came to understand bits and pieces of Shakespeare’s works.
And now I’m being paid to do a PhD in Shakespeare studies and am teaching his works to university students. I’ve still no idea how I ended up here, but it’s all pretty awesome.
One thing I’ve come to really appreciate over the years is the importance of understanding the context and all sorts of other related background information—after all, quite a few things have changed in the last four hundred odd years. I’ll be talking more about that in my next post, where I’ll also define some widely (conf)used terms, such as Renaissance, Elizabethan, Jacobean, and early modern.
But for now, I hope you’ve enjoyed this introductory post—and let’s go eat some celebratory birthday cake!
What were your first experiences with Shakespeare, and has your perception of his works changed throughout the years? I’d love to know!