Saturday, April 23rd, 2016 marked the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. It’s also believed to be his birthday, based on the recorded date of his baptism. Historians will likely never cease to debate this.
It’s no secret that I love Shakespeare. It’s not just a love of his writing, though. It’s a joy to hear his work performed, to see the incredible understanding that he had of the world around him. He was a man who embraced the differences in cultures, who invented words and phrases that have become commonplace, and who has influenced countless writers over the centuries.
I’ve seen and read a lot of Shakespeare’s work. It’s sort of a thing about earning an English degree, but it started long before college. My English teachers in high school had us read at least one Shakespeare play each year. I attended travelling performances that came to my town as part of a program called Shakespeare on the Plains (one cast included my future theatre professor). I own a few different copies of the complete worksk, and I’m most proud of an annotated set which belonged to one of my high school teachers. I have yet to read any of them in their entirety. And you know something? That’s okay too. He was an incredibly prolific writer. You don’t have to have memorized every sonnet and soliloquy, or even know what those things are, to appreciate Shakespeare.
My absolute favorite Shakespeare play is The Tempest, though sadly, I’ve never managed to catch a live performance. Several years ago, however, a new film version of it was released, starring Helen Mirren as Prospera (a very clever casting and genderswapping of the role of Prospero). This is probably my favorite production of the show, and is absolutely phenomenal. Djimon Honsou co-stars as Caliban, with Felicity Jones (soon to be starring as Jyn Erso in Star Wars: Rogue One) as Prospera’s daughter, Miranda. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it.
And a couple of notes on The Tempest. It’s the show in which I feel the greatest connection between one of the characters, Prospero, and Shakespeare. In Act IV, Prospero has been using his magic to perform a little show for his daughter and the young man who is wooing her. When he realizes that the time has come for the act to end, he says:
“Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. Sir, I am vex’d;
Bear with my weakness; my, brain is troubled:
Be not disturb’d with my infirmity:
If you be pleased, retire into my cell
And there repose: a turn or two I’ll walk,
To still my beating mind.”
He’s done with his life as a writer, it seems. Tired of his life of creating illusions for the people, Shakespeare is voicing his exhaustion through Prospero. The time, it would seem, has come for him to focus elsewhere. There’s a tragic beauty in it. Since The Tempest is believed by many to have been Shakespeare’s final play (or at least the last that he wrote on his own), Propsero’s dialogue at the close of Act V has always felt like a farewell message from the Bard himself.
“Now my charms are all o’erthrown,