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Happy birth (and death) day William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare’s birth and death day is today, April 23rd, which makes our Bard 458 years young. Wherefore art thou Shakespeare? The world’s best-selling playwright (4 billion copies), Shakespeare had that rare thing; knowledge of the practical craft he was involved in, creating plays that defy time and trend. Read on for a non-exhaustive account of this dear man we know and love (but struggle to read) with themes of wilderness years, craftsmanship & meaningful careers...

Will-isms that have lasted the test of time... how many of these have you used?
Shakespeare's life, loves and losses…
 
We know and love him as a classic and incredibly funny genius, but Shakespeare's story involves great personal hardship, wilderness years and a lot of hard graft...

Born in Stratford upon Avon, England, Shakespeare was the son of a craftsman (glove making), the third of eight children and the eldest surviving son. At just 18 years old, Shakespeare was hastily married to Anne Hathaway, who was 3 months pregnant at the time and nearly a decade his senior. Not that age gaps matter necessarily... but in their case it was not a happy match.
 
Known as the Lost Years, Shakespeare's existence is hard to trace between the years of 1585 -1592, when he would have been 19 to 26 years old. The assumption is that he was struggling on a personal level and as a young, massively bright spark trapped in an unhappy marriage with young children... it is easy to understand why. Whatever turmoil he experienced during those years, when Shakespeare found the exit to his personal wilderness circa 1952, he burst onto the London dramatic scene (aged 28 years) with, well, a lot of drama…
 
Of course, cracks and loss are precisely where the light gets in, genius was budding and forming just as the inner world of a cocoon goes through an intensely mushy and messy phase before the butterfly can emerge. Shakespeare's extreme self-awareness may also have been further developed during his many prior jobs, as a schoolmaster, a poacher and a horse valet for the theatre (so it is rumoured). Good work ethic that man. 

Production of The Tempest as advertised in the Tivyside, August 2019
The couple had 3 children in all; a son Hamnet who died aged 11 leaving two sisters behind, Judith and Susanna.
 
Will Shakespeare himself died at just 52 years old, on the same date he was born, following a heavy drinking session with his pals Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton. A month before he died, he wrote a will describing himself to be in ‘perfect health’. We can take comfort in the assumption that he was in good and courageous spirits at that final stage in his life... enjoying his jollies.
 
Most of his estate was entailed to the ‘first born male’ of his daughter Susanna, who had wisely married the good doctor John Hall (the other daughter unwisely married a bounder who brought shame on the family). Susanna and John had just one child and it was a girl, Elizabeth, who died childless in 1670 ending Will’s direct line. 
 
 
 
The Complete Works of Shakespeare for the bargainous price of £1.50, at Ty Hafan in Cardigan
His work…
 
 
The speed at which his popularity grew in London initially prompted jealousy and he was accused of overstepping the mark and trying to rise above his rank (good old-fashioned English snobbery was well and truly alive back then). However, as his work sped and reverberated across the European continent, he was largely welcomed with open arms. Other writers could be admired, William Shakespeare was (is still) loved.
 
Elaborately grand with double, sometime triple meanings galore, Shakespearian metaphor and even general chit chat can feel dense and inaccessible without a guide or teacher. Given time to absorb, the stories, language, plot and characterisation make for intensely vivid and fascinating watching.
 
There is a just a lot of everything in Shakespeare’s work, barely a topic he does not cover. Trans characters are literally everywhere! His social life was exciting too, though there is a veil of secrecy around it that we may assume is due to the restrictive social norms of that period.  Only males  could be actors back then, NOT because it was the law, just the 'done ' thing...

The large cast of actors that Shakespeare employed in his productions certainly got up to a great deal of fun and shenanigans. Have a google of the vulnerable and wonderful actor Nicholas Tooley or the courageous Mary Frith. Cross dressing is totally common place in Shakespeare; it allowed his female characters much greater freedom of expression than they would have been allowed (thank you Will!).  Love in all its many forms and glory is a strong and pulsing theme throughout his work; intensely loving friendships, parental love (and control) and extra marital affairs abound in his work... but heck, that’s exactly what we want in a good romping story isn’t it?
 
An epic titan of a writer, Shakespeare transformed medieval theatre as it was then…

Othello: Desdemona and Emilia discussing marriage in the above tomb
A little bit on the Medieval Mystery Plays (theatre pre Shakespeare)
 
Also known as the 'Cycle Plays', 'Corpus Cristi Plays' or 'Craft Cycles', these biblical dramas mostly covered the big stories from Creation, Adam and Eve, through to Judgement Day, but even in York there were none-religious theatre productions going on too, a good example being the enduring legend of Robin Hood.
 
Growing up near York, I was familiar with the Mystery Plays, they would come to town every year and my parents would insist that we kids sit through them… and we ungratefully found them rather long. In medieval times, however, they were even longer, regularly lasting several days. 
 
Back in the (medieval) day, they were intriguingly, and I am finally getting to my point now, in the exclusive hands of the Craft Guilds who competed to outperform each other in putting on the very best show!
References to him are everywhere! This £2 coin minted in 2016 was found in the till of Pendre Fish & Chip Shop, Cardigan.
After a long absence (Reformation induced), the mystery plays were revived in the 20th Century by such luminary actors as Ian McShane and Dame Judi Dench (among many others). Productions still take place periodically at the York Minster, York Theatre Royal and in the Museum Gardens of York, with a particularly notable production being the 2000 York Minster one, which my Mum attended (and raved about) when we were both at uni there.
 
These artisan and professional guilds were hugely important in olden times and are a loss to modern society, not just because of the theatrical implications, but because they lent our craftsmanship a status, a sense of belonging and a culturally valuable option for youngsters seeking out meaningful careers. To be able, to do, to make, to craft, to create...that is the question. 
 
Meaningful seems to be exactly what our young people (and old people) need right now, right here in post covid 2022…

Gorgeous poster from the Abbey Shakespeare theatre company, based in the wonderful ancient Abbey in St Dogmaels
Shakespeare today...
 
Just a few words as you can find him everywhere without my help, as these blog images taken during a shopping trip to Cardigan and St. Dogs today attest! I got into Shakespeare at school during my GCSE English Literature (thank you a million Mrs Pattison) where I got to play Juliet alongside my good friend Joe/Fish as Romeo. It was a real eye opener, cataclysmically romantic... and great fun. Our arty farty parents often took us to the Edinburgh fringe festival for our annual holiday and we always went to see ‘Shakespeare for Breakfast’ a hilarious and child-friendly show that our parents loved as much as we did. 
 
As a teen, I was literally obsessed by Baz Lurhman’s Romeo & Juliet film adaptation watching it hundreds of times and listening to the soundtrack on repeat. For me, this made Shakespeare's storytelling the most accessible of all productions and adaptations I have seen. Leo di Caprio as a young Romeo is also a sight to behold...

 Mini timeline:
 
Born: 23rd April 1564 (nearly 460 years ago), Stratford Upon Avon
Died: 23rd April 1616 Stratford Upon Avon
Lived: mostly in London 
Original Globe London Theatre built: 1599
Moved back to Stratford: 1609 (Bubonic plague was raging through London)
Globe London Theatre burned down: 1613 


 
If you enjoyed this you might like to check out:
 
Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, London (based on the Thames on the site of the original Globe which burned, does not disappoint!)

Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford Upon Avon (world class theatre, made in Stratford-upon-Avon and shared with the world.

Theatre Mwldan, Cardigan (regular National Theatre Live showings)

Abbey Shakespeare company, St Dogmael’s (beautiful wonderful setting for his work in the ruins of the Abbey)

Shakespeare for Breakfast (very funny, very accessible)

Shakespeare the Craftsman (great book about the mystery plays and how Shakespeare transformed theatre)


St Dogmaels Abbey, site of the Abbey Shakespeare Theatre Company and a beautiful misty and dramatic place to visit even on a summer's day!
 
 
 
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