Happy Birthday, Bill: A Love Letter to Shakespeare.
The 23rd April marks both your birthday, and the anniversary of your death. 1564 – 1616. I know those dates without even checking Google, since that day ten years ago when they passed me on the side of a bus with a picture of your face, and I have remembered them ever since. I take this day to express my thanks, and respect.
I call you Bill, as I’m certain that’s what your friends would have called you, and that’s definitely what you are to me. I think of you as a friendly arm around my shoulders in the pub, on a rowdy Saturday night.
I call you Bill because from a faded portrait on the wall of a gallery; a musty anachronism with stiff collar and balding head, your words transform you into something breathing, and visceral, and vivid; a tangible, vibrant part of the modern world; a crucial part of our 2020 lives. It is your words that change you from dull oil colours into a bloke down the pub, and you would be the clever life of every party, if only you still had flesh and blood.
As a student of English Literature, I feel about you the way other people feel about God; that you are father to us all.
With ink-stained hands, you gave us words where we had gaping holes in our native tongue. You gave form and names to emotions we couldn’t identify. You gave us stock phrases to perfectly express those ideas we had previously been unable to articulate.
You showed a dark, and frightened world that it is a clever, and noble thing to write words beautifully, and to let them shine like gold. Which is why, at two o’clock in the morning, when my hands are covered in ink because I insist on using a fountain pen, and I’m in the dark with my i-phone lighting up the covers instead of a candle, I remember you.
To writers, you give words, and entire dramatic conventions. You built the foundations of their profession, and fleshed it out with wealth, and depth.
To actors, you give the best role they will ever play. You have become the mettle by which actors prove themselves. You are their Olympics, Grand National, and PHD.
To theatre audiences, you give unbound excitement, and breathless thrills every week, for the price of a seat. Four hundred years after your first audiences huddled together in rancid crowds, now we do the same, to listen to the same words. In 2014, I saw Maxine Peake play Hamlet at The Royal Exchange in Manchester. I was six feet away from her. It was breath-taking. You gave us that.
You hold a mirror to all human life, from the lowest to the highest, every corner of society; every beggar, and every king. You teach us how human beings love, and hate, and why, and the often terrible consequences. You show us jealousy, and revenge, and misery, and every facet of human emotion. You show us why siblings have all-consuming and co-existing adoration and contempt for each other, and the constant struggle that will always exist between them.
With the help of hundreds of actors over four hundred years, your characters have become part of our social consciousness. Just by the mention of a name, they are a shortcut to expressing paragraphs of description and backstory.
Like JK Rowling borrowing ideas from Tolkien, you may have patchworked ideas, and words together from different languages and cultures; merging characters from Commedia del Arte with plots from Ancient Rome, and Latin words with Dutch metaphors, but the skill is in the merging; in the sewing together with golden thread. Like Rowling, your magic lies in that final beautiful patchwork, and the sparkling world created by your words, and no-one else’s. The magic cannot be borrowed or counterfeited. The magic is in the golden thread, which lives only in you.
You gave us Morrissey, and Oscar Wilde.
You gave us; “A scratch”, and Mercutio’s death, and Sir Andrew Aguecheek’s; “I was adored once, too”, and a thousand other lines, and people to break our hearts, and heal them again.
You show us that the pen is mightier than the sword, always.
Whenever I draft a Contract Clause, or Client Disclaimer, or particularly assertive response to an argumentative opposing Solicitor (I am in the legal profession); that flourish in my turn of phrase, which I enjoy with so much relish, is there because of you. You are there in the excited hammering of my keys, and in that moment, I am Shylock, and the satisfied smile as I press the send button is for you.
Every text message I send in full sentences, with correct grammar instead of abbreviations, is because of you. Because when I was fifteen, in a comprehensive school, in a grey northern town in the nineties; you taught me how beautiful, and important language is, and how much it says about the speaker.
When I passed my GCSEs, and A-Levels, and Degree; in every exam, and rehearsal, and at the side of every stage; every time I hit the final full-stop to the conclusion of an essay, you were there. Every time a Literary Journal arrived in the post, with one of my poems published, the elation and pride I felt belonged half to you, and half to my English Teacher, Mr Blake.
At University, for a production of As You Like It, whilst memorising speeches that are three pages long, I learned how rich, and complex your language is. I learned how it flows like music, or water.
You handed us words like ‘moonbeam’, and ‘shooting-star’, and ‘arch-villain’, and a hundred others, like precious gifts to be passed through generations like heirlooms, and we do.
Here is a small selection of phrases that we use every day, because you carved them out of dirt and darkness, and left them as a glittering legacy, to articulate our thoughts, all these years on;
A fool’s paradise
A foregone conclusion
A plague on both your houses
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet
A sorry sight
All corners of the world
All of a sudden
All that glitters is not gold
All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players
All’s well that ends well
As cold as any stone
As dead as a doornail
As good luck would have it
As pure as the driven snow
At one fell swoop
Be all and end all
Beast with two backs
Beware the ides of March
Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks
Brevity is the soul of wit
But screw your courage to the sticking-place
Come what come may
Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war
Double, double toil and trouble, fire burn, and cauldron bubble
Eaten out of house and home
Eye of newt and toe of frog, wool of bat and tongue of dog
Fie, foh, and fum, I smell the blood of a British man
Fight fire with fire
For ever and a day
Frailty, thy name is woman
Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears
Green eyed monster
He will give the Devil his due
His beard was as white as snow
How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child
I bear a charmed life
I have not slept one wink
I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
If music be the food of love, play on
In a pickle
In my mind’s eye, Horatio
In the twinkling of an eye
Is this a dagger which I see before me?
It is meat and drink to me
Lay it on with a trowel
Love is blind
Make your hair stand on end
Milk of human kindness
More fool you
Much Ado about Nothing
My salad days
Neither a borrower nor a lender be
Now is the winter of our discontent
Off with his head
Oh, that way madness lies
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more
Out of the jaws of death
Pomp and circumstance
Pound of flesh
Rhyme nor reason
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything
Send him packing
Set your teeth on edge
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Shuffle off this mortal coil
Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em
Star crossed lovers
Stiffen the sinews
Such stuff as dreams are made on
The be all and end all
The course of true love never did run smooth
The Devil incarnate
The game is up
The Queen’s English
The smallest worm will turn, being trodden on
There’s method in my madness
This is the short and the long of it
This is very midsummer madness
To be or not to be, that is the question
To sleep: perchance to dream
Too much of a good thing
Truth will out
Up in arms
Vanish into thin air
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers
We have seen better days
Wear your heart on your sleeve
What a piece of work is man
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet
When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions
Wild goose chase
Woe is me
Your language is everywhere in the modern world. Adaptations, like Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet, which is one of my favourite films, demonstrate how vivid and current your language can sound, and how freely it flows, as easily as if it were today’s grimiest street slang. This is the talent of the actors, and director, of-course, but mainly your shining words. In the right hands, your words flow so easily in modern culture, like rap lyrics, or spray-painted graffiti on a wall.
You are the beating hearts of Wuthering Heights, and the entwined plot turns, and many intricate misunderstandings of The Importance of Being Earnest. You are with Samuel L Jackson and Quentin Tarantino in Pulp Fiction; every speech is yours. You are in Alan Bennett’s monologues; you invented the rise and fall of their form.
You are in every sentimental greeting card verse. You are in every one of Alex Turner’s lyrics; every couplet is yours. You are the reason tourists come to England every year for rainy holidays.
You are the reason the English go to parks on hot Summer nights, and eat strawberries, watching your plays on cushions. We sit utterly spellbound, noticing the dew-drops on the evening grass, because you make them into characters before us, and give them life, and names. You make us notice the grass as vividly as the velvet of the costumes on stage.
You are with us all. All the time. Every word.
I’m ending with a poem by Kate Tempest called My Shakespeare, which was the inspiration for my writing this letter. It was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company, and perfectly articulates what I would like to say, better than I can say it.
I’ve also included a link to the project website, and a video of the poem being performed live, which is the best way to see it.
by Kate Tempest
He’s in every lover who ever stood alone beneath a window,
In every jealous whispered word,
in every ghost that will not rest.
He’s in every father with a favourite,
Every eye that stops to linger
On what someone else has got,
and feels the tightening in their chest.
He’s in every young man growing boastful,
Every worn out elder, drunk all day;
muttering false prophecies and squandering their lot.
He’s there – in every mix-up that spirals far out of control – and never seems to end, even when its beginnings are forgot.
He’s in every girl who ever used her wits. Who ever did her best.
In every vain admirer,
Every passionate, ambitious social climber,
And in every misheard word that ever led to tempers fraying,
Every pawn that moves exactly as the player wants it to,
And still remains convinced that it’s not playing.
He’s in every star crossed lover, in every thought that ever set your teeth on edge, in every breathless hero, stepping closer to the ledge, his is the method in our madness, as pure as the driven snow – his is the hair standing on end, he saw that all that glittered was not gold. He knew we hadn’t slept a wink, and that our hearts were upon our sleeves, and that the beast with two backs had us all upon our knees as we fought fire with fire, he knew that too much of a good thing, can leave you up in arms, the pen is mightier than the sword, still his words seem to sing our names as they strike, and his is the milk of human kindness, warm enough to break the ice – his, the green eyed monster, in a pickle, still, discretion is the better part of valour, his letters with their arms around each others shoulders, swagger towards the ends of their sentences, pleased with what they’ve done, his words are the setting for our stories – he has become a poet who poetics have embedded themselves deep within the fabric of our language, he’s in our mouths, his words have tangled round our own and given rise to expressions so effective in expressing how we feel, we cant imagine how we’d feel without them.
See – he’s less the tights and garters – more the sons demanding answers from the absence of their fathers.
The hot darkness of your last embrace.
He’s in the laughter of the night before, the tightened jaw of the morning after,
He’s in us. Part and parcel of our Royals and our rascals.
He’s more than something taught in classrooms, in language that’s hard to understand,
he’s more than a feeling of inadequacy when we sit for our exams,
He’s in every wise woman, every pitiful villain,
Every great king, every sore loser, every fake tear,
His legacy exists in the life that lives in everything he’s written,
And me, I see him everywhere, he’s my Shakespeare.