William Shakespeare was not born on this day in 1564. Or at least we don’t know if was. He was baptized on 26 April 1564. And it was conventional for people to be baptized three days after they were born. So what the hell, why not say that he was born today? After all, Shakespeare isn’t a man, he’s a myth. Also: he died on this day in 1616, so what the hell. It’s Shakespeare day!
The truth is that we know shockingly little about him. We actually know more about Christopher Marlowe because he lived a more colorful life. And we know loads more about Ben Jonson because he wrote so much about himself. Plus, he had the good sense to live his whole life in London and not go scurrying off to a backwater like Stratford-upon-Avon.
I have deeply mixed feelings about the immortal bard. On the one hand, I really do like a great deal of his work. On the other hand, he was hardly the romantic writing hero that I would prefer. There’s no doubt that Cervantes would have written regardless of its earning potential. But that doesn’t seem to be the case with Shakespeare. It seems that writing and the theater more generally was just a way to make ends meet. Not that it really matters but it is clear that we all think a great deal more of his work than he did.
But as much as I like his work, it is wrong to place it above the other work at the time. If you just look at the poety—the work on the micro-scale—it is not different from what other people were doing. And that’s clear enough in the fact that work thought to be Shakespeare’s has turned out to be collaborations. He just wasn’t the Wayne Gretzky or even the Michael Jordan of Elizabethan poetry.
Still, given how much the British Empire managed to cram Shakespeare down our throats, we all know him. Even people who have never seen a play can quote at least some Shakespeare, even if they are unaware that they are doing it. And so watching or reading Shakespeare is very much like taking a nice warm bath. It’s comfortable and pleasant. And it is endlessly fascinating what actors and directors manage to do with the work.
The following very short video is funny. And despite itself, it gets to the pleasures and annoyances of Shakespeare: I absolutely don’t believe that Shakespeare invented all of those phrases and words. But even the ones he did coin are only considered impressive because they are now widely used. And why are they widely used? Because of the literary imperialism of the British Empire. There’s a tautological element here: Shakespeare is great because Shakespeare is great. It’s similar to Facebook, which is popular only because it is popular; if there were only six Facebook users, it wouldn’t be very usual and thus popular.
Happy birthday or death day William Shakespeare!